Free-Floating Hostility

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Ambassadors

I didn't do anything funny today, so here's a pair of old stories. I've been doing rather a lot of reminiscing about international travel, perhaps cause I haven't left the country in four years.

Spring of 2001, Mike and I went to Berlin on our spring break to visit Joel (Big Joel, I mean, not Joel from Detroit). We had to fly through Paris, so we decided to take three days there on our way back. Coincidentally, we wound up sharing a plane with Akil, who strummed his guitar all over Charles de Gaulle airport. On our way back from Berlin to Paris we took the overnight train, sleeping with our passports in our underwear in case we should become a victim of one of those criminals who sprays sleeping gas into the cabins then fleeces everyone while they're passed out. I don't know, Joel told us to be careful of stuff like that. Anyway, as we were pulling into Paris I wound up in conversation with an elderly French couple who were sweet enough to let me stumble along in French. Mike, I should point out, was visiting Europe for the first time and was freaked out 24/7. He seemed to have the notion that he was going to get in trouble for not speaking French, and that his best policy was to fake it. So he just stood there rigid with anxiety throughout the conversation until the nice lady asked if we were German.

"Vous êtes alemans?" she inquired.
"Non, américains," I answered, beaming because this meant my French was good enough that she couldn't tell I was American.
At this Mike, who had been silent until now, heard "américains" and clutched at the familiar sound. "Yes!" he bellowed out in hearty affirmative, causing the nice frenchpeople and me to jump in the air and stare at him like he'd just suggested we have a foursome.

Akil, by the way, came up short on his share of the cab money back from JFK. I had forgotten all about it when, a month later, I was eating lunch outside the West End (sigh) when a hand appeared in front of my salad planting a ten-dollar bill on my table and I looked up to see Akil, who just winked at me and kept walking up Broadway.

A year later we spent our Spring Break in Montreal. Again, I trotted out my Brearley French whenever I had the opportunity, and mostly people were nice to me for trying. We were having supper at a crèperie and the waitress was humoring me as I ordered, then it was Mike's turn and she addressed him in French, too. "Non, non," I stepped in, "Il parle Espagnol seulement," meaning that he'd never studied French. But she of course got the idea that what I'd said was what I'd meant and began miming and shouting, "WOULD YOU LIKE--CER-VEZ-A?" At this point I was so embarrassed that I forced Mike to speak Spanish for the rest of the meal. For some reason he agreed to this plan, probably because he's really a much kinder person than I am.

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