TWO YEARS EARLIER we had decided to take a short break from the prosaic day-to-day of Silicon Valley. Nothing against technology, progress, and change-the-world ambition. But there’s something, I don’t know—vaguely unromantic—about the after-work atmosphere in the land of The Next Big Thing. The trees are lush and green, the sky is blue, and the temperatures are plus-or-minus perfect. But it all feels somehow . . . beige. As if the color were dialed back five or six degrees—not enough to really notice, just enough to make your soul itch.
We had moved there in 1984, soon after the Apple Macintosh came out. One day Eileen was standing in line at the post office as two ladies waxed poetic about the virtues of our new town.
“Can you imagine living anywhere else but Menlo Park?” said the first lady.
“It’s paradise,” said the second.
Eileen burst into tears.
We had just come from paradise—Santa Barbara, 300 miles to the south. And while we could certainly look forward to better wages in the silicon mines of the north, we sorely missed the red-tile roofs, the languid tar-scented breezes in the afternoon, the calm turquoise sea at dusk. We spent our first year in Menlo amid stacks of unopened boxes, watching Local Hero night after night, salty streams coursing down our cheeks as the young oil executive leaves the Scottish seaside village and returns to his colorless life in Houston, accompanied by the plaintive strains of Mark Knopfler’s guitar.
So Paris it would be. Two full weeks in the City of Light with our friends Cris and Gordon Mortensen, who had also moved from Santa Barbara, and under similar duress. Together we signed up for French classes on the assumption that a little French—un peu—was better than none at all.
Metal desks scraped against linoleum tiles as twenty-five adults took their seats in a colorless classroom. We had our books in front of us—French in Action I. Our teacher, Madame Céline, quickly introduced herself, switched on the TV, and pressed PLAY.
“Bonjour,” said Pierre Capretz, the on-screen mastermind of the series. “Moi, je suis le professeur. Et vous? Vous êtes les étudiants.” Got it. He was the professor, we were the students. But what about Madame Céline? So far she spoke only French and we spoke only English.
Pierre then introduced us to the lovely Mireille, her boyfriend Robert, and her younger sister Marie-Laure, who had the habit of sticking the phrase mystère et boule de gomme—mystery and bubble gum—into various scenes for comic relief.
While comedy is fine, French is French. After three lessons, more than half the étudiants dropped out, including Cris, Gordon, and me. Eileen hung in there, trooper that she is, a dedicated soldier in the French Foreign Legion. Each week she’d come home as if from desert bivouac—dusty, discouraged, and tired to the bone. Each week the same lament. “I can’t believe I’m worst in the class. I’m never the worst in the class.”
This is a woman who can quote whole pages of poetry, recite all the kings and queens of England, and identify hundreds of plants by their Latin names. If she can’t learn French, what hope is there for us mere mortals?
Eventually it came out that we four had been the only beginners in beginning French. Everyone else had taken French I at the very least. Some had taken French II, and a few had taken both courses more than once. Such is the quality of shame that French inspires—no one wants to admit they’ve failed. There’s even a Frenchism for this feeling, which we learned in Lesson Two: “Ce n’est pas de ma faute.” It’s not my fault. My teacher was incompetent. I missed three classes. I’m dyslexic. My cat died.
When the course was over, Madame Céline took Eileen aside.“C’est de ma faute,” she said, her face reddening. “I left my sandals in the apartment of some friends near the Bastille. Could you fetch them for me while you’re in Paris?” The faintest shadow must have passed over Eileen’s face. Madame Céline quickly added, “Don’t worry—they speak very good English.”
Our train pulled into the Gare du Nord. The platform was teeming with tourists and business people and French families on vacation. Loudspeakers bleated news of trains leaving and trains arriving. The air shimmered with diesel fumes. We stepped out of our compartment into a Monet street scene, an Impressionist movie of a train station going full tilt.
We counted our bags at the taxi stand. Two, four, six, eight—all there. A driver motioned us over to his car and began loading our bags into the back. When most of our luggage was in, he stopped. He yelled something that was cancelled out by street noise. Then he pulled the bags out one by one, and began loading again in a different order.
“Monsieur, votre voiture est trop petite!” Eileen shouted at the top of her voice. Three heads swiveled at once, awestruck by this unexpected mastery of taxi-driver French.
Cris tugged my sleeve. “What did she say?”
“Not sure. Something about ‘too small’?”
The driver shrugged, pulled the luggage back out and placed it on the sidewalk for the next taxi. Eileen seemed empowered. I knew what she was thinking: I can really do this, I can speak French. Paris is mine for the taking.
The next morning found us giddy with excitement. Our first full day promised fine weather and fine adventures. We purchased two bags of croissants from a rue Cler bakery and brought them back to the hotel.
In our room, the phone rang.
“Madame,” a voice said to Eileen. It was the hotel manager, a woman with perfectly coiffed hair and a perfectly coiffed poodle who had checked us in the night before. She would like a word with the four of us at the reception desk.
Madame leaned forward, braced her arms on the counter and rasped in a loud whisper. “You do not come to my hotel and parade your pâtisseries in front of the breakfast guests.” She indicated a small group of diners behind us. “Unlike you, they have paid for their hotel meal.”
Apparently, there were different rules in France, and we had just tripped over one. We made apologetic sounds and submissive gestures. We offered to reserve tomorrow’s breakfast for the sake of international relations. It was her country, after all. Pointing out the differences between our cultures wouldn’t serve much purpose. The best strategy in these cases is to make a mental note and move on.
We turned left outside the hotel and walked down the Avenue de la Motte-Picquet toward the Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower.
“Wait!” said Gordon, pointing to a sign. “The Hotel Militaire. Wasn’t this our number-two choice?”
“Maybe we should get a business card,” said Cris dryly. “In case we need to change hotels.”
We pushed through the revolving door and angled towards a birch-paneled reception desk. A tidy man in his forties, wearing a red jacket with gold buttons, stood at attention behind it. I nudged Eileen. “Ask him.”
“Avez-vous une carte de visite?” she said. The man turned away, his chin angled up. We looked at each other. She asked again, this time more emphatically. “Monsieur, s’il vous plaît, avez-vous une carte de visite?” He turned the other way, avoiding eye contact altogether.
We heard a small noise to our left, where a well-dressed woman stood in an office doorway. She said in perfect English: “Gustave, what is the problem?”
The man leveled the full weight of his grievance at Eileen. “She did not say bonjour!”
Years ago my wife and I concocted a remedy for these situations. Now, whenever we have a setback, we have a drink. Miss the plane, have a drink. Get lost, have a drink. Pockets picked, have a drink. The four of us walked over to La Terrasse and each downed a double whiskey—except for Gordon, who doesn’t drink.
“I’ll have a sparkling water,” he said, “Straight up.”
That evening the sky over Paris wore a swath of pink. The waiters wore black and we wore the best clothes we’d been able to fit in our suitcases. My brother had made reservations for us at a celebrated Michelin-starred restaurant on the Left Bank, a birthday present I could hardly wait to open.
The dining room was classic Parisian—a sea of candlelit tables and red velvet banquettes surrounded by mustard-tinted, wood-paneled walls. The day’s menu was set between red leather covers, printed on satin paper in two columns of engraved italics. Pâté en croûte, foie gras de canard confit, escargots en coquille, pavé de saumon d’écosse avec sauce béarnaise, sauté gourmand de ris de veau et jus truffé, soufflé glacé aux agrumes. The chef was reputed to be one of the best in Paris.
“Avez-vous choisi?” asked the waiter. Around the table he went, answering questions and arranging our dinners. Eileen ordered the filet de Saint-Pierre pôelé with potatoes and garlic.
“Trés bien, madame. Et pour votre entrée?
“Pas d’entrée,” she said.
“No entrée, merci.”
He blinked in disbelief. “C’est tout?”
He inhaled slowly, turned, and carried the orders back to the kitchen. Within minutes the chef exploded through the doors with the waiter in tow.
“Madame,” he said from across the room, leveling a chef’s knife at Eileen. “You do not come to a fine restaurant and fail to order an starter!” The man’s face was a vibrant red. His eyes glared and his heavy body swayed with testosterone-infused menace. If anyone had been talking, they stopped.
Now, one of the things you need to know about my wife is that she doesn’t abide bullies. She’s small, and although she may look like a pushover, she is not. She has a Napoleon complex that would make Napoleon think twice. I’ve seen her bring large men to tears in a matter of seconds. And now, from the corner of my eye, I watched her tendons stiffen.
First, there was the taxi driver. Then, the hotel manager. Finally, the fiasco with the business card. I could see that the trials of the day had brought her to the brink, and this one had sent her right over.
“Monsieur—” she said, pushing back her chair and pulling herself to her full five-foot-two. “You do not speak to a lady in that way. I am the customer. You are the chef. I will eat what I can, and you will prepare it. D’accord?”
Time stopped. Total silence gripped the diners as they glanced nervously around. Then, like the surface of a lake stirred by the wind, a wave of applause began to ripple through the room. Conversation resumed at a furious pitch. Women here and there picked up menus to reconsider their orders. Diners smiled admiringly at the French-speaking American.
“Ce n’est pas de ma faute,” she said. “Je suis petite.”
The chef dropped his arm and sagged back to the kitchen, defeated in the first round by the little American.
Each of us had a bite of Eileen’s filet de Saint-Pierre pôelé. It was delicious.
Subscribe to receive notifications of new stories, recipes, special offers, and travel tips
Buy the book on Amazon
Follow us at twitter.com/beginningfrench
Email us at email@example.com