I watched as the waitress with the moon tattoo descended upon our table straight out of the blue cigarette cloud. I prayed that the restaurant would turn into a serve-yourself cafeteria and — for a brief moment — I questioned my level of hunger, despite being fresh off an overseas flight during which I refused to eat the plastic-steamed chicken. I was shaking in my comfortable travel shoes and she had yet to even sputter out “bonjour.”
The thing about speaking French is that I can’t.
Canada is proudly a bilingual country and, therefore, I would be lying if I said that I haven’t known the definition of pamplemouse since I was four. I know the basics — bonjour, jambon, merci — but put me in a Paris café and ask me what I want to drink and all I can think is “uno momento, por favor,” which isn’t so much an answer as it is Spanish.
A panic set in. It happened the moment I stepped off the plane. Fifteen hours into a no-sleep-for-the-weak day and all of a sudden I felt bombarded with the need to push myself into a fluent, sight-seeing, rosé-all-day frenzy and I was not prepared to start it off grouchy, hungry and in a foreign language.
Paris is one of those cities that has grown to have a terrifying reputation. We — as generalized Americans — feel mistreated in Paris. We feel pushed aside, snobbed, cold-shouldered and poo-pooed. We (royally, of course) feel unfashionable, despite spending all of our pay cheques at Aritzia. We feel less-special.
“Parisians are so rude,” we say, convincingly.
“Excuse moi!” I practically yelled at our server over my steaming bowl of mussels.
“Wow!” My husband commended me, “that was aggressive.”
I don’t want to give myself all the credit — I had taken my lessons from the fashionable French girls sitting beside me, but he had a point. I would never signal to a waiter three tables away at home and holler “excuse me,” even if my carafe was empty. Passive-aggressive, maybe, assertive-aggressive, hardly.
Blame it on the wine or maybe just my built up Parisian anxiety but, for whatever reason, Paris brought out my inner New Yorker and contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t my waiter who was rude, it was me.
Oftentimes it’s when I am out of my own comfort zone that I find myself acting out of the norm — and I can’t help but think the nasty reputations come because it goes both ways.
Later in the evening Steve and I found ourselves traipsing down an empty cobblestone alley in the 10th arrondissement following yet another one of my Instagram recommendations. I am prone to discovering places in cities that tourists are not supposed to discover — so when we found the cocktail bar I was looking for manned by two giant, French-speaking men and no sign to indicate we were in the right place there wasn’t much shock.
The man uttered a sentence in the dark that I did not understand and I pushed Steve towards him.
“Américain?” he asked gruffly as he pointed to the brand emblem on Steve’s dress shirt and stood blocking the doorway.
“Canadien,” we replied.
“Ah,” he said as he smiled widely at us, “enjoy.”
As we felt our way through the thick velvet curtains and up to the bar — clearly the only two English-speakers in the gin joint — the bartender smiled and thrust us two menus — unaware we didn’t belong.
Between our smiles and our choice of cocktails we found a common language. There in the dark, outside the tourist district, for the first time since we landed we began to feel at ease.
People will always be wary of what they do not know — and how they act when wary will vary. What we need to remember in times of cultural stress is simply that we have more in common with our neighbors than not.
Smile, and you will belong. If that doesn’t work, order whiskey.
— Andria Parker is an Instagram-obsessed idealist with at least 600 words to share on every topic, ever.