The French, and Being Odd
Henry F. Tonn
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were sitting in a Parisian café one day in the 1920’s when Fitzgerald said, “You know, Ernest, the French are different than you and me,” to which Hemingway replied, “Yeah. They’re French.”
This scenario didn’t really happen, but it could have. I have simply tweaked a well-known story between the two. But the French are, indeed, a curious race—an observation even the French are known to make. And I wish to illustrate my point with the following story:
In the fall of 2000, my wife and I entered the last leg of a two-week driving tour of France. Coming in from the north, we circumvented Paris and drove to Versailles, where we checked into a small hotel, then spent the afternoon and evening walking the vast grounds of the great chateau there. The Palace of Versailles itself is glittery and impressive, but it is the grounds that transport one magically to another era. One can almost see Marie-Antoinette entertaining guests along the water at the Petit Trianon, carefree, insolated, unaware of her imminent fate.
We decided to conclude our trip by visiting Paris and, specifically, the Louvre. My intention was to drive our rental car there since the route was fairly straightforward, but when I mentioned this plan to the hotel clerk, he advised against it.
“Too much traffic,” he said, shaking his dark head somberly. He was a swarthy man, resembling a Marseille dockworker to me, with the obligatory moustache, muscular arms, and tattoos. “It is better to take the train,” he continued. “Take the city bus down the street and it will carry you directly to the train station. There will be no problems.”
“No problems?” I repeated.
“Yes,” he assured me, nodding. “There will be no problems.”
“That’s exactly what they told Napoleon just before he invaded Russia,” I said.
He looked at me blankly.
I am not a French illiterate, but certainly skitter dangerously along the precipice. I studied la belle langue for two years in high school and two years in college but, lacking the opportunity to practice in the United States where a plethora of French émigrés do not exist, I continue to speak it poorly. I can say bonjour and au revoir and order from a menu, but anything more complicated generally leads to trouble. In this case, the clerk had given us explicit instructions in English: pass the first train station and, when we see the second, exit the bus. Nothing could be simpler; however, my wife and I repeated these instructions several times to each other as we watched the streets fly by. When I spied the first train station, I announced, “Okay, that’s the first one.”
“Get off here,” came a voice. Looking over, I discovered it emanated from the little old lady seated directly opposite us. She was wrinkled and white-haired, weighing less than a hundred pounds, and wore narrow, thin, granny glasses. Her hands were busy knitting what appeared to be a colorful scarf. I had not noticed her paying any attention whatsoever to us during the short ride across town and had no idea that she could speak English.
“Get off here?” I repeated.
“Get off here,” she said, nodding firmly.
And so we arrived at our first decision. Do we follow the swarthy-ex-Marseille-dockworker-hotel-clerk’s directions or the little-old-scarf-knitting-grandlady sitting opposite us?
There was little time to consider, so we went with grandma. “Merci, madame,” I sang out as we made our exit, all the while wondering if my wife and I had just fallen prey to a perverted joke by a French grandlady who, for some reason, harbored a profound grudge against Americans. I envisioned her returning to her flat and saying to the neighbor, “Guess what I did today?” and the two of them abandoning themselves to derisive laughter while sharing a bottle of the local vin rouge.
But the lady’s directions proved correct, and we found ourselves at the station where trains ran regularly to the Louvre. However, now I encountered my second hurdle: the ticket clerk could not understand what I wanted. You would think a ticket to the Louvre was simple enough, but apparently, not so.
“Je ne comprend pas,” the ticket clerk, a corpulent man with dandruff, kept saying. “I don’t understand.”
My frustration mounted. I threw up my hands and looked around, searching for some way to make myself understood. Fortunately, a scraggly-looking college student with a backpack wandered up and ascertained the problem immediately. He asked us what we wanted, translated our needs to the clerk, and the tickets were finally issued.
I boarded the train with the hotel clerk’s assurances of “no problems” ringing in my ears.
The Louvre is a marvelous place to visit and I don’t want to disparage it. However, sometimes I think the French take their famous institutions for granted, along with the millions of tourists that visit their country. On this trip, my wife and I found the Louvre had the most execrable toilets ever witnessed. They were filthy even by French standards. Why the officials would allow such a travesty to occur in one of the most famous museums in the world mystifies me. Would you find this in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The British Museum? The Prado? I relate this incident simply as an example of French contradictions. They can produce the finest cuisine in the civilized world while having some of the filthiest toilets.
The sun set as we wandered along the Seine, and eventually we dined on a couple of delicious croque-madames at an outdoor café in the shadow of Notre Dame. Darkness fell and the city lit up—Paris at its best. Around ten o’clock, we decided to make our way home and returned to the same place we exited the train near the Louvre so as to reduce potential error. My wife and I managed to grab the last two empty seats in the car when we entered and, soon, it was filled with a number of young people who chattered animatedly back and forth as we sped along. I could pick out a phrase now and then, but, in general, had no idea what they were saying. All went well, and we were savoring the last hours of a wonderful vacation, when the train pulled into a station halfway to Versailles and stopped and did not leave.
We just sat there.
A murmur went up from the crowd and everyone started milling around, obviously questioning what was going on.
Finally, a conductor of some sort came walking through the cars giving instructions, and the students began filing out of the train.
“Why are we getting off?” I asked a thin young man who had been reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, guessing he might speak English.
“The train is closing,” he said.
“What do you mean the train is closing?”
“It is closing,” he repeated, shrugging his shoulders. “We have to get off.”
Well, of course, this made no sense at all, but my wife and I reluctantly departed and joined the throng of passengers who had gathered on the station platform.
“Now what?” I asked the same young man who was reading his book again.
“There will be a bus,” he informed me, looking up momentarily.
“A bus?” I repeated.
“Yes. It will take us the rest of the way.”
“What happened to the train?” I asked.
He shrugged indifferently. “It is difficult to say,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later, a bus materialized and everyone began boarding. It seemed impossible to me that such a large number of people could fit into this single vehicle, but they did. My wife and I were the last ones to climb in, and the doors barely closed behind us. “Packed like sardines” is a cliché, but I now found myself more physically intimate with the French population than ever before.
The bus wound its way through narrow streets, and the French youth resumed their lively chatter as though nothing unusual was happening. Fifteen minutes passed and all was going well until the bus entered a dark, narrow street lined with peculiar-looking iron posts. It was a two-way street, which allowed sufficient room for two small cars to pass each other, but not for a bus and car. We went down a hill and up the other side and, here, we met a Volkswagen just entering the street. It stopped, forcing the bus to stop, and both drivers sat quietly looking at each other. I waited for the driver of the Volkswagen to back up the hill and out of the way, but he did not. Instead, he blinked his lights.
In France, blinking your lights means the other party should move. But there was nowhere for the bus to go, so the bus driver blinked his lights back. A blinking contest then ensued with each party blinking furiously at the other. Finally, the bus driver pushed his head outside the window and, with much gesticulation, told the Volkswagen driver that he, the bus driver, could not back up, and that it was incumbent upon he, the Volkswagen driver, to move out of the way. The Volkswagen driver disagreed and the stalemate continued.
Our driver, a young, lanky male with disheveled, dark hair, threw up his hands at this point and indicated to the crowd, which pressed around him, that he did not know what else to do. Suddenly, a large youth next to us emitted a loud expletive and shoved his way angrily through the closed bus doors. He approached the Volkswagen like a bear in full attack mode and slammed his fist on top of the man’s car. The man reciprocated by shaking his fist and hollering something that could not be heard. The youth gestured with sweeping movements that the man should back his car out of the way. The man responded by giving the youth the finger.
Now things got serious. Young men poured out of the bus and attacked the Volkswagen in full force. Two of them opened the driver’s door and tried to drag him out of the car. The man—who appeared to be round, bald, and elderly—held on to the steering wheel for dear life, nearly losing his pants in the process. Next, a half dozen youths started rocking the car violently until I was certain it would turn over. Still, the driver would not budge. Everyone still remaining in the bus looked on quietly. An attractive French girl with short blonde hair, reminding me of the rock star Debra Harry, gave my wife and me a running account of the event in English.
“The old man there is very stubborn, isn’t he?” she said. “I think maybe he is going to get hurt if he does not leave the premises.”
I was too stunned to reply.
Suddenly, the old man bellowed out something in French. The youths stopped rocking his car and one of them ran to the front of the bus and threw himself against it, hands spread out as though imitating Jesus nailed to the cross. “Jamais!” he said. “Jamais!”
“The old man is threatening to take the bus number and report it to the authorities,” the girl said.
“Really?” I said. “But it’s his fault.”
“Yes, well, perhaps. But the driver could lose his job anyway.”
At this point, the driver bolted out of the bus and collected all of his passengers and ushered them back into the bus. For a very short time, the old man continued to sit in his Volkswagen, then he slowly backed the car up the street and quietly drove away. The driver put the bus into gear and proceeded on his way.
As we drove along, the bus driver, visibly upset, chatted with several of the youths. The girl translated. “He is afraid of losing his job if he is reported. We will all give him our identification and at least he will have support. But it is difficult to know how this will turn out.”
I just shook my head in amazement.
My wife and I finally arrived at our hotel at midnight. A different attendant now manned the desk. He was short, balding, and sported a pencil-thin moustache. He looked more Spanish than French. He greeted us cordially and asked in passable English if we had had a pleasant journey.
“Well, it’s been interesting,” I said. “As a matter of fact, I’d like to ask you a question.”
“I would be most happy to answer it if I am able,” he said, genuflecting politely.
I proceeded to relate the entire story of our recent experience. As I got to the part where the bus and Volkswagen drivers began blinking their lights at each other, two Frenchmen wandered into the lobby from a bar down the hallway and began listening with interest. When I described the youths trying to drag the old man out of his Volkswagen, they began to laugh, and several other bar patrons entered the room. Soon, everyone in the bar had drifted into the lobby, including the bartender, and was listening with rapt attention. When I demonstrated how the old man in the Volkswagen would shake his fist at everyone, half of them broke into laughter, while the other half waited for a translation, then laughed also. This created a continuous background of laughing and translations of my story. The listeners began slapping each other on the back and giving high fives.
Finally, the story ended. The audience waited expectantly. A pause ensued. “I just have one question,” I said, breaking the silence. “Could you explain to me what was going on there?”
The diminutive desk clerk cocked his head and smoothed his small moustache briefly, then cleared his voice. “Well, it is very simple,” he said. “French people are crazy.”
No translation needed here. All the Frenchmen fell to the floor in helpless laughter.
About the Author
Henry F. Tonn is a psychologist who has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in such print journals as the Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal, and such online journals as the Summerset Review, Front Porch Journal, Eclectica, and Lowestoft Chronicle. He is the editor of the war veterans anthology, Remembrances of Wars Past, featuring fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from award-winning writers throughout America and various foreign countries. Visit his website at henrytonn.com to view more of his work