I did the shopping for dinner tonight. And, like a real Parisienne, I didn’t do it all in one place. I started at the produce market where I greeted the man with “bonjour” as he simultaneously said “bonsoir”. I went to the wine store where I greeted the man with “bonsoir” as he simultaneously said “bonjour”. At the boulangerie, I got it right. I imagine bonjour and bonsoir blend together this time of year. It stays dark until 8:30 a.m. and gets dark at 5:30 p.m. My final destination, the Poissonnerie, presented the real challenge.
The poissonnière looked serious. I started to panic when I realized that I had not prepared a single word to help me place my order. At all of the other shops, I picked my items, handed the cashier a large bill regardless of the price and waited for my change. As the poissonnière assisted the man before me, I started fumbling with my dictionary for the word “halibut”. An elderly woman approached a few minutes later and started asking the poissonnière questions. I was feeling anxious, certain this new customer was going to try to cut in front of me. I’d heard rumors about Parisiens not respecting lines and had observed it at the airport. I struggled with the situation in my mind and contemplated what I would say: “Pardon”? “Excuse moi”? “I have a gun”? (Since we're on the subject of stereotypes). Then I thought, really, I’m in no position to take a stand and resigned myself to the fact that I’d be there until closing, or at least until Fred got off work.
The poissonnière stepped from behind the counter, ready to assist the next guest. She was favoring the elderly woman. Just then, the elderly woman stepped back and gestured to me. I was speechless (mostly from fear and lack of preparation). I stuttered and eked out in Franglish something like: “No, vous first, je ne parle pas Francais. It will take too long”. Then, this wonderful woman, looked at me with the kindest eyes you’ve ever seen and said in English (with a French accent): “You can do it”. My eyes welled-up with tears. I choked them back as I muttered “Flétan pour deux, s’il vous plait” to the poissonnière, who clearly wasn’t as touched. She looked perplexed by my request, but my guardian angel snapped: “flétan” because she could make sense of my horrible accent (and then proceeded to assist me through the rest of my transaction, because they didn’t have halibut, of course). I thanked her in French as I left. I’m getting good at having to thank people. She responded in English and wished me a good night.
I started crying on my way home. Maybe I was tired, maybe it’s the holidays, maybe it’s because they didn’t have halibut. People have been very nice to me here, but for some reason I found this woman’s words of encouragement very touching. I was overwhelmed by her kindness in a moment when I really needed someone to be kind.