Lessons in Humility – A Hilarious Day in Paris
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
This is a little light, entertaining reading for you... and lessons in Parisian humility for me! Haha. I hope you enjoy it and it brings you as much entertainment as it does me re-living it through writing.
I begin my thirty-minute walk to Jardin du Ranelagh, a pretty park located in the 16th arrondisement. I meet my new acquaintance (friend?) Breton here every Tuesday to practice French. I ask him how to say phrases (“How do I ask for tap water at a restaurant?”) and about the culture of Paris (“Do people take their grocery trolleys with them through the store or leave them at the front of the store while they’re shopping?”).
He’s a philosophy professor who looks to be in his 50s. He works 20 hours a week (“I’m only scheduled 17 hours, but I work 20 hours to get overtime”) and has three kids at home. His wife is a kindergarten teacher. He wants to sound “more American”, and has offered to trade me free French lessons for tutoring in English. I had asked a Facebook group (Americans in Paris) how they learned French, and multiple people reached out to me offering free French lessons in exchange for tutoring in English (how they ended up in the Americans in Paris Facebook group, I have no idea).
Our conversations are entertaining and surprising. I realize that French people don’t have the “th” sound in their language, nor the “r” sound. This makes it extra difficult for them to pronounce these sounds when they speak English. On the other hand, Americans don’t have the “guttural r” sound in English, and this makes it difficult for us to pronounce it. I find us talking about different ways to position the anatomy of the mouth to make correct sounds.
We also spend a decent amount of time talking about the polite way to speak in French. Parisians are often very polite – always greeting you, always thanking you, and always saying goodbye, have a good day. Breton teaches me the politest way to ask for something, which always starts with Bonjour and always ends with S’il vous plait.
Breton is fascinated with the “dropped t” in English, which he has watched many YouTube videos about. I’ve never heard of it. He explains that Americans tend to drop the “t” in some words, like sentence, mountains, and curtain. I practice saying them out loud. He’s right! We practice them together, and I teach him that even though “mountain” ends with “-ain”, it sounds more like “-en”. He is ecstatic and says no one has ever taught him this.
After a few hours, we part ways. I walk the thirty minutes home and stop in a bakery. I said I wasn’t going to eat gluten this week, but man, those pan du raisin pastries always look so good, and I eyed one on my walk earlier. I entered the bakery. “Bonjour, je voudrais un pan du raisin s’il vous plait.’ I was already using the wrong words – Breton had just taught me to use “Puis-je” instead of “Je voudrais” (“can I have” instead of “I want”), but I was too shy to use this phrase after only just learning it.
“Ce tout?” the employee asked me. I froze. What was she asking? I must have looked confused, because she said it again. “Ce tout?” “Uh…..” Oh!!!! She was asking me if that’s all I want. Duh. It’s the exact thing they ask me every time I’m in a bakery. “Oui! Merci.” I have been practicing saying “Yes, that’s all” (Oui, ce s’ra tout) but my mental energy for the day was gone.
I was home by 5pm and plopped down on the couch, eating soup for dinner and snacking on my pastry. Chris was out of town in the UK for work this week, and I was trying to keep myself busy so I wasn’t lonely. I remembered that I was supposed to check out my breast pump I brought from the US this week.
A friend had given it to me as a hand-me down, and I needed to replace a few parts. I could ship the parts to my parents before they came to visit in a few weeks, as they looked to be only sold in the US. I had just had an OBGYN appointment that morning and suddenly the fact that I was 7 months pregnant was really hitting home. I pulled out the breast pump from its packaging and brought up a YouTube video to teach me how to use it.
8 minutes later, I thought, eh, piece of cake! This thing will be easy to use. I plugged it into a European adapter, since the plug was American. I turned the nob to turn the machine on. Woosh, woosh, woosh.. PFFFFFFFTTTTTTTTTT. The machine had pumped all of three times before it shorted the electricity. A puff of smoke emitted from the electric output. Crap. I quickly turned it off and assessed the damage. Did I burn out the machine or the outlet? Was I about to cause a fire? Could I be electrocuted!?
It seemed logical that electricity couldn’t move through wood (is that right?), so I used a wooden spatula to unplug the machine from the outlet. Ugh, it smells like burnt hair. Welp, that happened. I realized I needed to now find a breast pump here in France. Also, did I just cause hundreds of dollars of damage to the electrical outlet?? In France, tenants are responsible for seemingly everything that goes wrong in the apartment. Chipping paint? Scrape it and paint it yourself. Wooden pieces missing from your wooden floors? Better buy some wood filler. Dishwasher not working anymore? You’ll be paying for the technician to fix it.
I decided to leave it alone and deal with it the next day. A small part of me thought I should check the electrical breakers, but I assumed I had really blown the outlet and needed a professional electrician. I had walked over 8 miles that day doing errands and had pregnancy-induced insomnia the night before. I was pooped. I decided to send a quick email to the agency that helped us get our apartment. “Bonjour Annette, one of our outlets is no longer working. Can you tell me who to contact to come fix it?”.
As I put on my pajamas, I realized the dress I was wearing had a giant hole in it. I had paid 50 Euro for this dress the first week we arrived in Paris. 50!!! It was only 5 weeks old, and I had probably worn it 5 times. What the heck. I resolved to go to Monoprix the next day and see if they could do an exchange. Monoprix is a chain store in Paris, similar to Target in the US.
By 9:30pm, I was in bed, and shortly after, having the strange dreams that come when you live or vacation somewhere new (anyone else, or is it just me who dreams that their old boss is coaching them during swim practice?).
8am the next day, I was up and ready for some American coffee. Thankfully, the apartment came with a French press (slightly broken, but gets the job done). I boiled water and emptied the dishwasher. We had ordered sheets for the guest bedroom from Amazon but couldn’t quite understand the sizing of beds here. The guest bed is bigger than a twin bed, but not as big as a full. The bed in our master bedroom felt huge, but it wasn’t a king, and our queen size sheets from home fit the bed just fine. Hmm.
I tried putting the new queen sheets on the guest bed. They were too big, but they could be tucked into the sides of the bed. Good enough. I had no idea how to make Amazon returns and this was one thing I could check off the list in preparation for my parents to come visit. I tossed them in the washer with a few clothing items.
I made oatmeal, then opened the freezer to get some berries. Is the freezer off?!? I patted the top of an ice cream container – there was water pooled on top of it. I checked the rest of the items. They were still frozen, but barely. I must have tripped this electrical source when I busted the other outlet the night before. Shoot.
I called Annette. “Bonjour Annette! Our freezer is now not working!” She responded that she had already let the landlord know after getting my email the night before and was waiting to find out what time a technician could come. I breathed a sigh of relief.
At 10 am, it was time to head to Monoprix. I bought the dress at a store about 30 minutes away, but there was a Monoprix closer. I decided to try that one first. I didn’t have the original receipt (first mistake), but I had a picture of most of the receipt, which I randomly took when I tried to get reimbursement for items we bought when our luggage was lost for a week after we arrived in Paris. I bought the dress with a credit card, though, so I assumed they could look it up that way (second mistake!).
I popped into Monoprix and walked to the help desk. “Bonjour, parles vous anglaise?” (Do you speak English?). “Non, Madame…” said the associate, motioning to her colleague. I waited for her colleague to be available. “Bonjour Madame, parles vous anglaise?” “Oui, un peu. ”I explained my problem and held up the dress, the big hole gaping. She asked to look at my receipt, to which I brought out my photo.
“Hmmmm where is the date?” she asked. She was right, somehow when I took a photo of the receipt, I must have cut off the date. She explained that she couldn’t help me, but I could try going to the Monoprix where I bought the dress and see if they would. I doubted it, but I could use my walk for the day, and I set off. I had originally planned to go to the library, but since an electrical technician might be coming to the apartment, I figured I should stay relatively close to home.
22 minutes later, I entered the other Monoprix. “Bonjour, parles vous anglaise?” Sadly, I got the same response regarding my dress. I needed my receipt to make an exchange. After being frustrated for a good 5 minutes, I forced myself to name three things I was grateful for. This was my trick when I started a “woe is me” pity party for myself about a first world problem. I realized that I was lucky I learned so early into our life in Paris that I should keep all receipts. I counted my blessings that it was a beautiful day for a walk and that I was healthy enough to walk a few miles while pregnant without being uncomfortable. My time wasn’t wasted, it was just a learning experience, I told myself. Furthermore, I figured I could probably coax my mom into sewing the hole closed when she came to visit. Thank goodness for moms.
I moseyed my way back towards home. Aldi had just opened near me, and I was so excited about it that I instantly signed up for their newsletters. Today, they were supposed to have grocery trolleys – those wheeled grocery carts you sometimes see people use in the US in open food markets. They are used very frequently in Paris, because unless you are only buying a few items at the store, it can be difficult to haul groceries all the way home. I had been window shopping for one for awhile, and was excited that Aldi was selling them.
I popped into the store but didn’t see them anywhere. I could come back the next day or the next week, but I figured I would just ask someone. “Excusez-moi monsieur, parles vous anglaise?” “Non,” the employee responded, but he instantly called out to a colleague. “Hey, American boy!” he yelled in English, laughing. A friendly gentleman walked over to me with a giant grin. “Bonjour madam, can I help you?”.
“Wow, your English is amazing!” I said, and I meant it. He almost had no accent. “I’m looking for your grocery trolleys. Do you have any of those for sale?” “No madame, I think they are coming next week. There’s another store that sells them though, just down the street,” he said, eyeing my pregnant belly and pointing to the door. “That’s okay, I can wait. I’ll come back. Thank you!” I said, grateful that he seemed to fully understand me. “Where are you from?”, he asked.
“I live here now, but I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.” “You are?!? I lived in Cincinnati!” He began yelling in French to his colleagues, seemingly about how he lived close to where I was from. He gestured to three of his colleagues, including a woman. He also seemed to be explaining that I had been looking for a grocery trolley. I smiled and started turning away, out of the store. The woman employee approached me.
She spoke to me in French and started gesturing for me to follow her, also eyeing my pregnant belly. Hmmm, maybe they have the trolleys in stock somewhere in the back, but just haven’t put them out yet? I wondered if she might be leading me to them. Alternatively, there was some sort of miscommunication, and she was leading me who knows where.
She continued to gesture for me to follow her. I went through a little white door and down a dirty, narrow spiral staircase. After weaving through a few hallways, we passed by an office where two people sat. The woman offered an explanation to them of why I was with her. In French, I heard the words “pregnant” and “toilet”. I suddenly realized where she was leading me. Somewhere along the lines, she thought I had been looking for a bathroom. “Oh, no, I don’t need the toilet,” I told her in English. She just smiled and continued leading me. Obviously neither one of us could understand each other.
Bathrooms are relatively hard to come by in Paris. They’re in every restaurant, but they’re not for public use – only if you’re a patron there. There are no public bathrooms in stores, and even when you ask, they’ll tell you to use one of the toilets that line the street (they’re actually relatively nice – you just might have to walk another 15 minutes to find one). I understood that this was a kind gesture of her to be leading me to a toilet.
We passed through rooms made of just dry wall and seemed to make 5 more turns. We ducked under low door frames and climbed stairs multiple times. Finally, the bathroom. “Merci beaucoup!” I told her. What the heck, it had been a few hours. I might as well go to the bathroom. It was obviously for employees only; multiple purses and personal items were stacked together on a table inside.
She was waiting for me as I exited the bathroom, which was probably a good thing. After our winding walk, I might genuinely have gotten lost trying to get back. After I got to the spiral staircase, I thanked her and walked out of Aldi, slightly confused and mostly amused. Every time I get frustrated by something in Paris, something else hilarious seems to happen that both entertains me and reminds me to be humble and grateful. No, I didn’t need the bathroom… but it’s nice to know that Aldi will let a pregnant woman use one if needed!
I walked back to the apartment holding a few plants I bought along the way. What a weird day. When I walked into my apartment building, I ran into Camille, an acquaintance I had met in the hallway a few days prior. She was newly divorced and had gone to college at Georgetown in the past. This unique combination resulted in an ultra-friendliness as she sought new friends and looked to speak English among native speakers. She had offered to have Chris and I over for a gouter sometime (afternoon snack). “Hello! Come in, come in.” She gestured to me.
She lives on the ground floor and is the only tenant to have a garden space all to herself. The rest of us have windows or very small balconies where we shove our plants. “Come have a tour!” She said, and walked me around her apartment. I spent the next 15 minutes walking around and listening to her talk about her life. She was getting ankle surgery again in January. Her daughter is almost done with engineering school. She is headed to the movies tonight with another foreign friend, and would I care to join?
I left with a slice of homemade chocolate cake in hand she had just baked that morning. I headed up the two flights of stairs cradling my three new plants and a Tupperware of cake. I’ve heard and read so many times that Parisians are rude and snobby… but I haven’t met a single one yet. So far, people are willing to help you when they can and will speak English to you as best they can.
I plopped all my plants down and wondered if I should start transferring my freezer food into the fridge. It was 1pm and I was hungry! Yet, how was I going to eat all that freezer food on my own in the next few days while Chris is still in the UK? I checked my email – nothing from the agency yet. I figured it would be a miracle if a technician really came that day.
I remembered my thought the previous day about checking the electrical breakers. Why I hadn’t checked them yet, I didn’t know, but I sifted my way through the coats and cleaning items in the narrow closet to the breakers. Lo and behold, one of them was tripped.
I flipped it back on and heard the freezer begin rumbling to life. WOOHOO!!!!! I checked the outlet that had blown the day before. It was working too. YES!!!!!! I texted Chris the good news and called Annette. “Bonjour Annette! Everything is working!!!”.
I mused at my weird day, full of random interactions with people, lessons of living in France, and plenty of miscommunications. I resolved to always keep my receipts (duh, the French love paperwork, I should have known this one), not to use any electronics that aren’t bought in Europe, and to keep Aldi as a top contender in the stores I frequent. What will tomorrow bring? Who knows, but it will be sure to hold more French-living lessons, hilarious miscommunications, and moments of humility!