The Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse that Mary Helen did not get to visit.
My husband and I recently received an invitation to a wedding in France this April, and, like the narrator in our favorite J.D. Salinger story, we thought we just might go, expenses be hanged. Among the benefits of attending—in addition to witnessing the vows of two Omaha friends who “met” at their 40th high-school reunion—were a ride on the TGV (le Train de Grande Vitesse, a very fast train) from Paris to southern France, and a weekend at the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse near the medieval town of Carcassonne in the historic region of Cathare, where the wedding would take place.
The only downside was the fact that neither of us could get more than four days off from our respective jobs, which meant that we wouldn’t be in France long enough to experience jet lag before we were back home again.
In the end, common sense prevailed. Our soon-to-be-newlywed friends are having a stateside reception in June, so it’s not as though we won’t get a chance to celebrate with them. Still, on April 19, I know I’ll wish that we were hurtling toward le Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse at 140 mph, minimum.
“Ah, well,” my husband said. “C’est la vie.”
He can talk. He was in Paris as recently as 2009. Technically, I was en France in 2009 as well, with my sister, but only long enough to have a run-in with a French customs official at Charles de Gaulle airport en route to Italy. He—the customs official—stopped my sister and demanded to search her carry-on bag for the bottle of water one of his colleagues had mistakenly “spotted” in Sandra’s bag. It was “bottle of water!” that he kept saying over and over again in what he believed to be English.
“You don’t speak English?” he said when we failed to understand him. A vein on his forehead seemed about to burst.
I sometimes regret even now that I didn’t come out and ask the guy, “Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez, monsieur?” and thus give him a chance to say in French whatever he was trying to say in English. I had been, for one brief shining school year or two, a high school French teacher, and while my vocabulary was limited, my pronunciation was not half bad. At the time, however, I had a bad feeling that if we followed up several minutes of not understanding his English with my rather nice question in French, he would be so humiliated and angry that Sandra and I would miss our flight to Venice. And so we continued to fail to understand, as politely as we could. When the search of my sister’s bag yielded no water bottle or anything like it, the Frenchman finally threw his hands up in disgust and stamped our passports, glad to be finished with these two Americans who were obviously too stupid for words.
His gesture—that universal backhand wave of disgust and dismissal—was like déjà vu all over again. It sent me straight back to 1974, when my husband John and I were pretty newly wed ourselves. We were spending the month in Paris, something that I felt was required of a newly minted French teacher. (A month was all that we could afford.) We registered for classes at the Alliance Francaise, where John learned to say “Ma voiture est verte,” a statement which would, eventually, be true. The mottled blue Mustang we drove at the time would soon be replaced by a green VW beetle, followed in turn by a green Volvo wagon—as classic a sequence of vehicles as any child of the ’60s could ever hope to drive.
John also learned “C’est tout!”—an easy-to-pronounce (“Say two!”) and useful phrase—when he was buying croissants one day, pointing at this one and that. The lady asked, “C’est tout?” Ever obliging, John said, “Two!” although he really wanted four of them.
John made only limited progress en francais, because he spent most of our month in Paris in the Air Canada office. While I improved my intonation and updated my vocabulary, John tried to convince the airline agents that we had purchased two round trips from Chicago to Paris, even if our many-paged flight coupon booklets did not, in fact, contain the tickets for our return flights. Somebody in Chicago had made a big mistake and, in an age preceding email, cell phones, and Skype, John spent many a morning-to-evening in Paris, sending something called Telex messages to Chicago.
In case you’re thinking that not checking our tickets to make sure they would get us to Paris and back pretty much qualifies as too stupid for words, well, sure it does, but there’s more.
One Saturday afternoon, when the Alliance Francaise and Air Canada were closed, John and I took the Metro to the eastern end of the line: Vincennes. A forest, a zoo, a chateau. Something to take our minds off the fact that we might be in Paris for longer than we’d thought. We strolled between the trees to the chateau and joined a group of people gathered around a well-dressed woman. Delighted to understand her crisply enunciated French, I passed along to John the fact that Vincennes was built for Louis XIV and abandoned upon completion of the grander chateau at Versailles. (It was at Versailles, in the Hall of Mirrors, that John thought he’d been shot, but the large red stain on his blue knit shirt came from a bag of raspberries.)
At least at Vincennes our clothes were clean. The group dispersed, leaving John and me with the well-dressed tour guide, who changed the subject from Vincennes to something that wasn’t getting through to me. I can’t help wondering what we looked like to her: a long-haired boy carrying lunch in a stained string bag, and a girl in a cheap flowered skirt from the sidewalk sale on the Boulevard St. Michel. That woman didn’t know who we were or where we were going, and neither did we. I think now that she was trying to be tactful, but I never did get what she was talking about and she never did get her tip. Like the French customs official of the future, she finally gave up, threw her hands in the air, and walked away.
After a moment, I explained to John, “She thinks we’re too stupid for words.” We laughed, embarrassed, and ate our lunch under a tree.
I wouldn’t want you to think that was the only impression we left on the French back in 1974. One time, after a restaurant meal in Paris, I made a stop in the restroom and then followed John through a maze of tables on our way to the door. How surprised we were by the smiles and nods that greeted us—even a smattering of polite applause—from the diners we passed. (Perhaps there were joyful dukes among them—who knows?) Not until we were out on the sidewalk did John fall a few steps behind me and discover that the hem of my light and flowery skirt was caught in the waistband of my underpants.
Mary Helen Stefaniak is author of the award-winning novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.