The other day I had possibly the fanciest experience in Walmart history: I met a real-life French dude there. FROM FRANCE. In the interest of preserving his anonymity, I will refer to him as “Olivier,” which I consider the best French boy name. (In high school French class, we were encouraged to choose a French name, and since to my knowledge there is no French equivalent for Ami, I chose Vivienne because of Vivien Leigh and my near-psychotic love of Gone With the Wind, made obvious by my Southern-belle-inspired prom dresses. Later I discovered that for his French name, Chris had coincidentally chosen Olivier — as in SIR LAURENCE, the love of Vivien’s life — and it all just seemed too perfect, as long as you don’t think about the infidelities, mental illness, murderous rages and divorce.)
Pour moi, French has always had a certain je ne sais quoi because of the way they throw away perfectly good letters at the ends of words and never use one word when five will do (much like this blog — though it generates no revenue, mentally I like to pay myself by the word, with generous bonuses for dashes, ALL CAPS and italics). Despite the allure of the language, though, I have never been the type of girl to squee at a foreign accent (or attract male attention — EVER), which made this encounter all the more unexpected.
There I am in the toy department, my cart loaded with Shopkins paraphernalia for Maribeth’s birthday party, when a KU-spiritwear-clad middle-aged man exclaims in a heavy French accent: “Your stores here are huge! I get lost in them! Do you like it this way? In France we have to go to lots of small stores for different things.”
I immediately flash back to the shock and awe of my first visit to the wonderland that was Hypermart USA in Topeka, Kansas, in 1988. “Yeah, I guess we’re used to it and kind of spoiled.” [Upon reflection I thought: Spoiled? You are in Walmart, Ami. WTF.]
Olivier: “You speak French? Parlez-vous français?”
Me: “Oh, no, not really. I took some in college, but that was 20 years ago.” [When I recounted this story to Chris, I admitted that afterward I realized it was more like 28 years ago, and he said, “Yeah, I thought, ‘TWENTY years — what are you talking about?’” Time flies when you’re forgetting everything you ever learned, especially math.]
Olivier says a bunch of incomprehensible français that I think ends with “Comment allez-vous?”
I sift through the jumble of foreign words my sievelike brain has retained, a vocabulary heavily tainted by the semester of Italian I took a mere 26 years ago. Va bene? No, that’s not it. On va à la plage? Non. Oh, here we go: “Comme ci comme ça?” (Because we are, after all, in Walmart, so bien seems a bit much.)
Olivier (in an encouraging tone): “Ah, oui! How much French did you study?”
Me: “A couple of years in high school and a couple of years in college.”
Olivier: “And you never went? To France?”
Me: “Oh, nooooo.”
Olivier: “Why not?”
Me: “We never had money to travel.” [Bumpkin alert!]
Olivier: “You can work and travel. You can pick grapes or apples. It is not hard labor.”
Me: “Oh. Huh.” [When it hits 80 degrees, I find watering flowerpots on my stoop too taxing. I have never wanted to go ANYWHERE enough to work as a field hand.] “So do you live here now?”
Olivier explains that he is here for a few months to tutor some children in French.
I smile and nod.
Olivier: “You could learn too, if you wanted to. Just start speaking it again; it will all come back to you.”
Me: “Oh, you think so?” [Hmmm. I did recently resolve to become multilingual because some days English just doesn’t have enough expletives.]
Olivier spouts some more français, all of which I miss.
Me: “Uh, I never spoke it very well. I could read more than I could speak.”
Olivier: “Oh, well, start reading again; you will pick it back up. I could help you, if you wanted to meet for coffee sometime.”
This is where my brain goes on alert rouge. What the hell is this? I feel awkward enough conversing with people I know in my mother tongue, let alone a strange Continental in a language I barely understood two (or three) decades ago. I try to imagine the rendezvous at which this coffee would be drunk. School is almost out for the summer — would I bring my kids? Or would I leave them at home and tell them I was going to my “French lesson”? I scramble for an escape hatch from this interaction.
Me: “Oh, I’m married.”
Olivier: “Because you are married, you cannot meet someone for coffee?”
Me: “Um… I don’t know if my husband would like that.” [Truth be told, I didn’t know at the time whether he’d give a rip whom I had coffee with, but I’d chosen to Pence this situation, so I had to stick with it.]
Olivier: “Why would your husband not want you to have coffee with someone?”
Me: “Well… Because you’re a stranger? I mean, maybe if we had worked together or something…” [Mentally I immediately start poking holes in that theory: “Really? Would that scenario be more husband-soothing?” Luckily Olivier is so perplexed by my refusal that he doesn’t argue that point.]
Olivier: “I am just trying to understand this American mentality… In France we do not…”
[My unspoken knee-jerk reaction: “Oh, I KNOW in France you do not. I’ve seen movies.” I order myself to stop thinking in stereotypes.]
Olivier [shaking his head at my silly American prudishness]: “OK. So you do not think…?”
Me: “Probably not a good idea.”
Olivier: “OK. Well, it was nice meeting you. What is your name?”
I tell him. He tells me his and then spells it and asks if I can repeat it. Of course I can, because he shares a name with one of the bad vampires from the Twilight saga, but I refrain from pointing that out. He compliments my pronunciation and then hugs me. Overwhelmed by his cologne, I take the back alleys to the grocery section and pray that he once again gets lost amid the ’mart’s American excess.
Afterward, I pondered Olivier’s motives and my reactions. First of all, I cannot imagine that the man was trying to hit this mess — no one did when I had the bloom of youth about me, much less now that I am 48 and look every damn day of it and then some. AND I wasn’t even wearing eyeliner. (Also, one would think my cartful of Shopkins crap, which implies that I either own a small child or have extremely juvenile taste in décor, would discourage even the most desperate lothario.) I checked my purse, and my wallet was still there, so he was not a pickpocket (or at least not a good one). Maybe that “coffee” was really a basket of lotion in a cellar hole and he wanted my hide for a suit? Doubtful — I’m pretty pasty, blotchy and speckled. Perhaps he’s a bit lonely in a foreign country and simply looking for a friendly face? Maybe. I smile a lot and try to be Christlike af because I am the only Bible some people will ever read. (Unfortunately, by the time my family gets home, that Bible has usually fallen facedown on the floor, figuratively speaking, and Jesus can’t get out, which may be why Chris is stymied that in public I am so approachable, or as he puts it, “a freak magnet.”) My only other conclusion is that Olivier was trying to drum up more tutoring business so he could stay here longer because they don’t have Walmarts in France. (Quelle horreur!)
Whatever Olivier’s reason for approaching me, the encounter made me feel like a teenager again — not in a good way, just awkward and full of self-doubt. The fact that I resorted to “I’m married” as an excuse makes me cringe because 1. It sounds presumptuous, as if I assume I am super-hot and am constantly rejecting indecent proposals and 2. By this age I should be able to just say, “No, thank you,” instead of feeling I need to shelter a man’s ego with a tent of lies. At the time I didn’t know whether I believed I shouldn’t be able to have coffee with whomever I choose. I have since clarified this point with Chris.
Me: “Would it have been OK with you if I had agreed to meet him for coffee?”
Chris: “Hell no.”
Good thing we cleared that up. Tomorrow I need to go back to pick up some birdseed, and an Italian could be lurking around any corner.