I don't have much of an accent in French. Sometimes, I don't have one at all. This causes more problems than one would think. Most French people I come into contact with, whether briefly or for extended periods of time, assume I am French. They begin to get suspicious after a while, because inevitably, I will do or say something that a French woman would not. Ever. Like ask a question that leaves no doubt of my ignorance. While smiling.
Last year, my company sent me to a small town in Normandy to interpret between our French technicians and the rural Georgians we had hired and sent to France for training. The interpreter we had chosen (okay, I had chosen) turned out to be a raging bitch and a racist to boot, so when her contract expired, they sent me to fill in for the last two weeks.
I arrived at the hotel, and was handed the "key" to my rental car at the front desk. It looked more like a card, and the sullen girl at the desk muttered that it was "one of those new Renaults." I didn't think much of it, and went to deposit my things in my room. After freshening up, I decided to take the rental car into "town" (two roundabouts, three cafes and a few shops) for a spin, to check out the surroundings and get used to the way the car drove.
The hotel front desk was set away from the main dining room, where several tables were already filled with people eating an early dinner. I breezed by, eager to get out of there and check things out. I hate staying cooped up in my hotel room when I go someplace I've never been before. I like to get a sense of a place, go out, talk to people, absorb it.
So I marched over to my newfangled Renault, and pulled out the key-like thing from the card, looking for the opening in which to insert it. I sat in the driver's seat, the door ajar, bending around the steering wheel with my leg hanging out, and poked every crevice and hole I could find, trying to get the thing to fit. I couldn't figure out where the ignition was. There didn't seem to be one at all. I had driven a Saab before, whose ignition is sneakily hidden under the parking brake, but this thing was impossible. I looked around. No one was in the parking lot. I couldn't proclaim defeat and return to the soulless hotel room to watch badly dubbed American reruns. I had to at least go for a short drive.
So I went back inside to the front desk, and asked the friendlier woman if she knew how the Renault keycards worked. She frantically waved her hands in front of her and said, "Oh no! Come with me!" She came around from the desk, beckoning for me to follow. She planted herself in front of the half-full dining room and bellowed,
"Does anyone here know how to work the Renault keycards?" waving it up in the air. Everyone looked up. People put down their forks to get a better view. One man looked around him nervously before saying,
"I think I can help," and hesitatingly came towards us.
"Mademoiselle is the one who needs help," she said, indicating me with her chin, and walked away. I smiled at the man and led him to the rental car in the parking lot.
"Thanks for your help, I really appreciate it," I babbled, trying to smooth the transition from interrupted dinner to helping a perfect stranger find the ignition in a rental car, "I just hate to stay in the hotel room when I first arrive; I have to check out the surroundings, you know?"
Without saying a word, he took the keycard from me, opened the rental car door, and slid it into the perfectly keycard-shaped slot next to the steering wheel, right underneath the green round button that said "Start." In English. All in less than 5 seconds.
"Ohhhhh!" I exclaimed, "you would have thought I could find that, but, see, I was looking for the ignition, cause you can pull a key-shaped thing out," I mimicked the action. "Plus why would I think you would start a car with a card?" The man let out a polite laugh-like sound.
I waved to him as I tore out of the lot.
I headed into town, whizzed through the two roundabouts, and drove around the little hamlet. Darkened cafes and a few restaurants, the ubiquitous "Tabac", a couple of clothing stores, and that was it. All shut down for the night. It was 7:00. I had forgotten how desolate small French towns are after 5PM. I sighed. My hotel was the only place open to get a bite to eat and have a drink. I didn't like my hotel, a modern yet run-down buffet place, with a horrible peach and maroon napkin/tablecloth combination and sallow lighting.
Back at the hotel, I was about to head up to my room and skip the unappetizing looking buffet altogether, when at the last moment, I decided to again thank the man who had helped me. He and his friend were the only customers left in the dining room. I walked up to their table.
"I just wanted to thank you again for your help - if it weren't for you, I would still be in the parking lot trying to figure it out!" He looked at me. In the space of three seconds, his eyes took in the blue tinted sunglasses perched on my head, my dark lipstick, my purple lambswool boa, black leather jacket, all the way down to my high heeled ankle boots.
"Are you from around here?" he asked.
"Um, not exactly," I said, amused that he would mistake me for a small town Normandy girl. "And you?"
"We flew in today from Paris via helicopter," he said, gesturing to his friend, "but our motor malfunctioned and we are waiting for a part to come in tomorrow. So we had to spend the night here."
"Ahhh," I said sympathetically, "I see," looking around at the ticky-tacky dining room and back at them, knowing they found it as unappealing as I did.
"Would you care to join us?" he said, pulling up a chair.
They ordered me a cognac, and we began to share our impressions of the little town where we were all marooned. Something I said, some word I used in the wrong context, caused him to cock his head and ask,
"Exactly where are you from?"
I smiled. "Atlanta, Georgia. Home of 'Gone with the Wind' and Coca-Cola."
"Ahhhh," he said, laughing, "that explains it!"
"Explains what?" I asked.
"I thought at first you were French," he said, "but then I began to have doubts."
"Why?" I asked, expecting he would say something about grammar or the hint of an accent.
"Because a French girl would never do that."
"Come in to the middle of a crowded dining room and announce she needs help."
I was intrigued. "Well what if she really needed help? What if, like me, she really wanted to go somewhere and couldn't get the car started?"
"She would call a friend, or not go."
"So she would just sit there? Why?"
"Well, she would be afraid of what people would think of her." he explained patiently.
"Really?" I said, astonished, "what would they think?"
"Well," he said, hesitatingly, not sure if he should go on.
"Out with it," I said, "you won't offend me."
"Well," he started again, "when you first came in and said you couldn't work the key to your car, I thought to myself, 'Quelle idiote!'"
I laughed. "So now that you know I am American, you don't think me quite as silly?" I asked.
"The rules don't apply to you," he explained.
Thank goodness. Because I'm not one to sit in a parking lot out of pride. Because when I asked for help, my only concern was getting out of there. It never occurred to me to be self-concious.
My mistake is I don't know when to shut up. Take for instance my recent exchange with an employee of the freight company that is receiving my household goods in Paris. He had sent me an email asking for me to fill out some paperwork and send a notarized copy of my passport.
I decided to call him to confirm it was all he needed.
"I received your email, and I just wanted to confirm that you need a notarized copy of my passport and for me to send you this completed paperwork," I said into telephone.
"Yes, madame," he replied, all steely professionalism.
"Is there anything else you need?" I asked. My dealings with Fabienne had taught me that you must ask the right questions, the information will not be volunteered.
"Well since I have you on the phone, tell me about where the goods will be delivered. Is it a modern or old building?"
"It's modern." I answered. "Though I really prefer old."
"Is there an elevator?"
"Oh, yes," I said.
"How many people will fit in the elevator?"
"American people or French people?" I asked.
He laughed. Gotcha! I thought.
"French," he replied.
"Seven French, four Americans." I said.
I was going through his other possible questions in my head. I work in a factory, where we have to monitor every product that comes in the building and make sure we have a safety data sheet about its chemical properties. My head was filled with restrictions and toxicity levels and how the moving company had refused to ship my liquor collection and my myriad bottles of fingernail polish remover. The property management company of my Parisian apartment had sent me a small tome of the building rules and regulations. This was my mindset when he said,
"What cannot go in the elevator?" I wracked my brain. I hadn't read the rule book, and I couldn't think of what might not be allowed in there.
"I don't know," I said, "maybe you should ask the doorman?"
There was a full three-second pause on his end. "But the doorman does not know what you have shipped from the US, madame," he said, his tone rising slightly at the end.
I suddenly understood what he was asking. This is the moment I always seal my fate. I do not need to share my every thought. I should learn to just accept the moment of clarity.
"Ohhhhhh!" I exclaimed, "I understand! You mean what's too big to fit! See, I thought you meant something about building rules and regulations, you know, like what is dangerous and can't be transported in the elevator, like, I don't know, bleach, because it's flammable? And maybe it gets dangerous if you go up and down too much with it?" He had tried so hard. Up to now, he had maintained his well-groomed professional exterior. He could no longer help it. He burst out laughing.
By the end of the call, he asked, "So, are you French or are you American?"
I was amazed he didn't know. "I'm American," I said.
"Oh, really? You talk so normally."
"Normally? No one has ever called me normal," I said.
"Well you talk like a Frenchperson," he elaborated.
"Well it does me more harm than good," I said. "Admit it," I said, a wry smile in my voice, "when you thought I was French and I said that about bleach in the elevator, you thought, 'Quelle idiote!' but now that you know I'm American, you forgive me!"
"Well, yes," he said between laughs.
"Oh believe me," I continued, "I really make an impression, because on top of it all, I'm blonde!"
"Oh, no!" he exclaimed.
"Oh yeah," I said, "I blend right in!"