Today’s tally of French encounters: 4.
(1) Went to a cell-phone store to buy SIM cards.
I hate dealing with cell service providers, even at home; more often than not, the employees are very young, don’t seem to know much, and don’t seem to care (this has held true in every country where we’ve bought SIM cards). The young man who helped us today walked that same line between benign indifference and eye-rolling brusqueness, but he did ask his coworker and a random girl who popped in (a friend, I think?) to help us; they both spoke some English but acted awkward about it — as awkward as we did in French, I suppose. They did test one bit of conversation on us, though:
English-speaking employee: Obama.
Me: Oui, Obama.
ESE: Le nouveau président. [Or did he say “your new president?” Honestly, I can’t remember.]
Me: Oui, c’est bon.
And that was the end of that conversation.
(2) Phoned the hairstylist recommended by our host.
I prefer any type of communication rather than the phone. I even thought about walking to the hair salon and making my appointment in-person, to avoid calling, but what if the stylist were with a customer? My host had said his was a one-man operation. She had also said that she’d give him a heads-up call in the morning, to tell him to expect a call from an inexperienced French speaker. Nothing for it… I picked up my newly SIM-carded phone, took a deep breath, and dialed, heart pounding.
Stylist: Bonjour, [incomprehensible stuff which must have been the name of the salon and something like “how may I help you?”]
Me: Bonjour, um, j’ai été référé par Cécile A—. [I’d Googled how to say this.]
Me: Er, je voudrais prendre rendez-vous pour une coupe. [Also Googled.]
Stylist: [something incomprehensible, in which I caught the words “la semaine prochaine,” next week]
Me: Okay, la semaine prochaine… quel jour?
Stylist: La semaine prochaine… [incomprehensible] mercredi, le quatorze?
Me: Ummmm… oui. À quelle heure?
Stylist: … quatorze.
Me: [total confusion until I remembered that on a 24-hour clock, “14” is a time of day.] Ah, oui! Oui, oui.
Stylist: Wednesday the 14th, at 2 o’clock.
Me: [laughing] Oui, 2 o’clock.
After that, he asked my name, my last name which I had to spell (fortunately, I remembered how to say “h-s-i-a”), and my phone number, which I gave, French-style, in a series of double digits (ie, “06 23 14 05 13” — which is not my number). I had looked up the numbers beforehand to make sure I got them right, because French numbers are confusing to Anglophones: the way you say “78,” for instance, is “60-10-8.” He then read them back to me in English, and repeated the time and date of our appointment, also in English. I thanked him with relief, he cordially bade me “au revoir,” and that was that.
Really — as in the case of all my languages — it’s not my language ability that holds me back, but my fear and dislike of making mistakes and sounding stupid. But as I reminded myself all day long, if I wait until I can speak perfectly, I’ll be waiting forever. And so — I muddle through, irrationally nervous. It took a long time for my heart rate to go back to normal, after this call.
(3) Went to a boulangerie-pâtisserie to get a snack.
Thank goodness, every bakery we’ve been to here has had little display cards with the name and price of every item. That has not been the case at all bakeries in every country. So bakery interactions here are straightforward:
Me: Bonsoir. Un gâteau basque. [At home I’d ask for one slice of whatever it is, but I don’t know all the counting words for everything in French, so I just ask for the number. I don’t know whether that marks me as a foreigner. And yes, I did scrutinize the case to make sure there was no whole gâteau basque for sale!… though there are definitely worse fates than going home with an entire gâteau basque.]
Cashier: [mumbled price]
I didn’t hear what she said, and there was no cash register display to double-check. But I re-checked the price card and gave her that amount, which turned out to be correct. We said merci and au revoir, and I left, paper-wrapped slice of cake in hand.
(4) Went to an épicerie to get another snack.
Buoyed by my successful bakery transaction, I wanted to try again, so I went next door to the épicerie (a small grocery or mini-market) and browsed their offerings. I ended up getting a bunch of bananas.
The friendly cashier weighed them and then read off the price from the scale. The numbers confused me again — I forgot “94” is “4-20-14” so I heard the fours and couldn’t reconcile them at first with what I saw on the display — but I soon figured it out. The young man put the bananas in a bag (I keep taking plastic bags because I haven’t yet looked up how to say “I don’t need a bag, thank you”), but then continued to hold the bag out and open for me. I saw that he expected me to put my slice of cake in the bag too, so I did, smiling. He handed me the bag, smiled back, and said “au revoir.”
It’s rather silly how nervous I get about every encounter in a foreign country, but I guess it’s a consequence of habitual overthinking and lingering self-consciousness. I half expect everyone I meet to laugh at me or throw me out of the shop, so it’s always gratifying when they don’t! — and even better when everything goes smoothly. I don’t know whether our travels are making me more courageous about trying new things, or just wearing down my willpower to do so (we do stay home an awful lot)… but anyway, I’m sure they’re good for me.
And speaking of trying new things, we’ve booked a stay in a traditional house in Kyoto, for March. So. There will be that.
Oh, and one more bit of randomness. You know how, in Istanbul, I kept wishing I could have private time in the beautiful old mosques and palaces we saw? Turns out, in some places, money can buy such things!!!