It’s interesting, the small things one notices when moving to another country. The emergency sirens, for example, have a different rhythm and tone. I find it slightly less obnoxious than the one in the U.S., but maybe that’s because every apartment I rented in San Francisco was within one block of a fire station. Sometimes, however, I feel like I'm losing my mind. And it all has to do with the French siren. I definitely heard it once, loud and clear. But now I hear it all the time. My ear is like a seashell, host to the constant un-uh, un-uh, un-uh.
At night, I leap from the sofa and ask Fred if he can hear it too. He almost always responds no. It taunts me like the little boy who cried wolf. What if there were a real emergency when Fred is at work? Will Bilbo and I escape alive? I love Bilbo, but he’s not like one of those cats you see on the PAX channel that senses earthquakes or warns of odorless gases seeping through an air conditioning vent. No, we will both die.
I wonder if it is my version of an imaginary friend. Perhaps I am that desperate for excitement. Maybe working from home is really getting to me. I searched the internet for clues. Possible diagnosis: excessive ear wax (no); Menieres Disease (huh?); hypothyroidism (maybe, I'm unable to lose weight - oh, with diet and exercise you say? No, then.); head injury (possibly); Lyme Disease (I did go to a Neneh Cherry concert in 1988); stress (likely).
Noises followed me to the streets. I was certain that at least 25% of the people I passed by were talking to themselves – not into a discreet cell-phone ear-piece, to themselves. I told Fred of my experiences, but, again, he said that he had never noticed such a thing so I assumed I was hearing voices. We dined with Olivier (the nice one from the wedding) the other night and I asked him if he had noticed it. He said never, although he did admit to humming to himself as he walked down the street.
Last night, we hit the mother lode. Fred and I were eating dinner in very close quarters when a man came in and sat at the table next to us. He proceeded to strike up a conversation with himself. Fred couldn’t deny it. Finally, a witness! I was dying to know what he was saying, but Fred wouldn’t eavesdrop (another reason I need to learn French!) The man seemed competent. He was well-groomed and ate with utensils.
When the waitress dropped off his check, he started talking with her, a lot. Having been a former waitress, I could feel her pain. Especially here, where the tip is included, you really have no incentive to entertain your patrons with conversation. I mentioned to Fred that the man seemed lonely (I had seen him look over at us a few times during dinner, like an eager child hoping to get picked for Red Rover).
I told Fred that he should chat with him while I went to the bathroom. Fred did not, of course. So when I returned I took it upon myself, the U.S. Goodwill Ambassador, to ask him “Vous manger ici beacoup?” [You to eat here a lot?] And, for the next hour, there we sat, speaking to Francois our new best friend. He spoke English very well. He worked in London for 2 years, 25 years ago (and yet I can't remember my French lesson from yesterday!) He was very kind and interesting and shared all kinds of information about history, his family, his health, etc.
As Fred and I walked home, I realized why people here talk to themselves. Because they can end the conversation at their convenience. They don’t have to put on their scarf (hint one), put on their jacket (hint two), move to the edge of their seat (hint three), say “it was nice meeting you” three times (hints four, five, and six), stand up (hint seven), take three steps back (hint eight), or look at their watch multiple times (hints nine through twenty) . When they're done talking, they're done talking.
Although I’ve solved this mystery, I still don’t know why there is a siren in my ear. Perhaps it’s trying to warn me to listen to my husband and not talk to strangers.