08 November 2005

Sure, I fit in! Just don't ask me to speak.

Here was my original agenda for today, as spelled out in yesterday's blog post:

"Go inside [Sacré-Coeur] and climb the stairs to the top of the dome ... After I meet my conversation partner, I'm off to shop in some inexpensive jewelry stores to see if I can find a necklace to go with my opera dress."

I'm pleased to report that I did everything I planned, though not exactly in the order I expected. Overnight, the riots had managed to seep deep enough into Colin's and my collective unconsciousness that we both woke up with every little noise, convinced that the angry mob was outside our window. (At least I think that’s why we couldn’t sleep. Either that, or we really need to cut back on our caffeine consumption.) At any rate, we both woke up bleary eyed and unrested around 10:30. To give ourselves a break, we had a leisurely breakfast, showered (separately, of course – there’s barely room for one person in there, much less two!), caught up on the news, and headed out into the world around 12:30 pm. With only 30 minutes to spare, there was no way I was going to make it to Sacré Coeur and back before meeting my new conversation partner, Isabelle.

I am pleased to say that Isabelle is fantastic! I don’t know why, but I was a little worried that I would end up with a little old lady. I’m not sure how old Isabelle is, but she’s far from little old lady status, thankfully. We agreed to switch back and forth – 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in French – for two hours. The first 30 minutes was all French, and within the first 10 minutes of this, I was certain of two things:

1. Isabelle is a great conversation partner because she's good at correcting pronunciation, grammar, etc.


No, seriously. There is no other way to express item number two. I just freeze up when it comes to speaking French! I am a disgrace to my wonderful teachers at Michigan. I’m not afraid to talk, but I literally cannot think of a single thing to say! Poor Isabelle ended up asking me questions, which I answered in rather poor form. I cobbled together a couple of stories, but for the most part, it’s a wonder she didn’t just get up and leave in disgust.

Her English, as you can probably guess, is awesome. She’s really self-conscious of her French accent, and wants nothing more than to lose it all together when she speaks English. This is a tough thing for me to help her accomplish, but I’ll do my best! She has had conversation partners before, so she was really well prepared (which made me feel like a real schmuck). I promised her that I would brush up a bit and plan some things to talk about before we meet again. (Assuming there is a next meeting!)

Alas, I did learn one unfortunate fact from her. Pschitt is not pronounced as we originally thought. It’s actually pronounced like the sound a bottled carbonated beverage makes when you twist off the cap. (Kind of like pssst, but with a sch sound instead of just a hissing s.) I told Isabelle what it looked like to us Americans, and she was quite surprised to hear the correlation between the two words. (Yes, she knew what s—t meant without me explaining.) After more or less humiliating myself with Isabelle, we parted company amicably and I headed on to Sacré Coeur.

I quickly realized on the métro that I should have used the facilities at the café. I had to go. BAD. As soon as I reached my stop, I dashed up the stairs in search of the nearest 50-centimes refuge. On my way there, a man having a rushed conversation on a cell phone stopped me and asked very quickly, “Est-ce que vous avez un stylo?” (“Do you have a pen?”) I was so proud that I knew exactly what he said that I replied, “Oui!” and gleefully handed over my pen. As he started to write something down on his arm, it occurred to me that this might not have been the best thing for me to do. But, since it was too late to tell him that I didn’t have a pen, I decided to wait patiently until he handed it back to me.

Moments later, he thanked me and told me I was kind, and I squeaked out “de rien” (not a problem). He quickly caught on that I was not a native French speaker, but asked me (in French) if I spoke French. I said that I did a little bit, and he asked me where I was from. I’m sure he wasn’t as innocent as he looked, he seemed genuinely shocked to find out that A) he had asked an American for a pen, and B) said American understood French. He switched into English and asked if he could wait for me so that we could talk more once I came out of the bathroom! (Gulp.) Fortunately, he gave me an out: he asked if I had to be anywhere, and I literally said, “No, I have to meet … someone … somewhere.” Seriously, I could not have lied more obviously! Fortunately, he got the hint and said, “No problem, it was nice to meet you anyway,” and left me alone. So, maybe he was totally innocent, who knows? I’m not missing any valuables, so no one successfully pick-pocketed me while we were chatting. So, maybe on some level, I fit in a little bit better than the average tourist. Here’s hoping anyway.

My next encounter with “well-intentioned” English speakers came shortly thereafter. If you’ve been to Paris, you’ve probably encountered the super-aggressive beggars near Sacré Coeur, the Louvre, or other big tourist sites at least once. Their scam is simple: a man gets in the face of an unsuspecting tourist and ties a cheap bracelet around his or her wrist. Then, they coerce the victim into paying for the bracelet that is now permanently attached. I find it to be incredibly rude and inappropriate, but I guess you can’t blame them too much for sticking with something that works.

Being the savvy woman about town, I was fully prepared to run into these guys today. So, as I got close, I just stuffed my hands into the pockets of my jeans and kept my head down as if I were going to head-butt my way through. As expected, a man got right into my personal dance space and tried to get my attention. I just said, “No, merci” and kept walking. After about five or six “no merci’s” I had successfully run the gauntlet and the evil bracelet pusher left me alone. Strangely enough, it was kind-of empowering to know exactly how to get through the trap without getting caught. Girl power!

Once I had climbed the entire hill, I made a beeline for the stairs to the dome. At that point, it was just shy of 4 pm, and I was afraid that they would close for the day before I got in. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and 5 euros later, I was on my way up the spiral staircase.

There are simply no words to describe the view! Except for the city pollution, it was a beautifully clear afternoon with hardly a cloud in the sky. I would gladly make that climb again in a heartbeat – it was 5 euros very well spent indeed. Some Irish tourists were up at the top at the same time as me, so I was able to have one of them take my picture as proof of the climb. Since I STILL can’t post pictures to Blogger.com (what’s up, guys??), I’ve added shots to http://caroust.photosite.com. C’était fantastique!

Once you get back down to the bottom of the dome’s tower, you have access to several little chapels and relics. I took a fairly quick spin through this because it was getting late and I really didn’t want to be in the 18th arrondissement after the sun went down!

On my way back down the hill, I passed a man “playing” a violin for spare change. I put “playing” in quotes because he was the WORST musician I have ever heard playing for money in Paris. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing when he squawked out “O Sole Mio!” in the most pathetic, duck-choking-esque series of notes that could possibly be played on a violin. I think people were just giving him money in the hope that it would make him stop.

Of course, I had to run into the bracelet-pushers on the way down as well. I was one firm, “NO MERCI” away from using the only French curse word I know, but the guy got the message just in time. Darn. After all, what fun is it to know how to curse in another language if you never have an occasion to use it? Right? Oh dear, here comes my mom and a bar of soap. Gotta run!


At 8/11/05 21:43, Blogger JODSTER said...

I once was in love with a girl in France. I sent her a love letter written in French to show how much I wanted to be a part of her culture, as she had been in mine.

She sent it back covered in red ink with corrections.

It didn't last long after that.

At 9/11/05 12:05, Blogger petersonet said...


Great blog and great writing. I found your blog about a week ago and have really enjoyed it. My wife majored and French and I have forwarded your site to her as well; she spent a year in Paris when she was in school, and I am SURE that she will recognize some of your trials and tribulations.

Keep you head down with the riots over there. It's worse here in Ramadi, Iraq, but I carry a gun and travel around with a bunch of Marines.

A bientot,

Erik Peterson
Major USMC

P.S. If you want to see how the other half lives, http://petersonet.blogspot.com .

P.P.S. To post pictures, download Picasa from the Blogspot link. It's easy once you figure it out, but confusing until that magic moment.


Post a Comment

<< Home