My high school French teacher friended me on Facebook. In case the gray hair and lack of tax refunds wasn’t enough validation that I am officially an adult, this settled it. Like any good educator, her first order of reconnecting was to inquire into the current proficiency of my second language.
“These days my French is only good enough to get me through the morning ‘Le Monde’ which came with the free breakfast I earned for being si charmant the day before,” was my response… but it’s not how you think…
By the fall I drove from Paris to Madrid, I’d been studying French for 10 years and had been many a time lost in Marseilles and on back streets in Paris. While I was far from fluent, I had a cache of useful phrases that usually won over important people like concierges, bell hops, and bakers.
Our rental car rolled into the drive way of Le Saint-James, a Relais and Chateau “gourmand” hotel nestled above the city of Bordeaux, on a mini vineyard. It was a one night stop for the food — the restaurant was hailed as one of the best in France. The bell man/valet/Mr. Fix-it was a broad-shouldered, dark-haired man who was a real-life incarnation of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, complete with the red polo shirt. I giggled when I saw him. He instantly became sour when he realized we were American.
I realized that if I didn’t want him to smash all the porcelain mugs I’d just scored in Limoges, I was going to have to act fast.
I threw out a few quick directions and asked a few location questions in French. He paused.
“Parlez-vous Francais?” He asked with surprise.
“Un peu. Je comprends mieux que je parle.” (a little bit. I understand better than I speak.)
He smiled and repeated what I just said. “That is excellent! Your French is excellent!” he said back, in French, before happily carrying my bags to our room and offering to park the car for us.
As he walked me to our room, he chattered away at me. Talking about what to see in Bordeaux if I had any time and then carefully instructing me on how to work all the high-tech functions in my new age white-from-floor-to-ceiling room. The bed was on the floor and every light and blind and tap was operated from one remote control.
I didn’t see him again until the morning, when I was on a hunt for some advice on breakfast. Le Saint-James is the kind of boutique hotel that can get away with charging 40 Euro per person for a basket of breakfast breads. Our indulgence had been dinner the night before — a luxurious multi-course tasting menu of nouveau French cuisine. A. MAZ. ING. For breakfast, all we wanted was a roll and coffee… and not to spend another fortune on a meal.
I saw Gaston sitting at a counter outside the restaurant. He was reading the paper and I paused to scan the headlines and pictures over his shoulder. There was a snapshot of a local rugby game. I asked if he played and told him my father had played for South Africa. It was a replay of a chat I had a few years ago in a college level French conversation class.
“Is there a bakery in town I can pick up some a roll for later? Maybe a cafe?”
He quickly turned to the fancy coffee machine next to him and rolled out a petite cafe — the French version of espresso and ran down the hall. He came back with two of those 40Euro bread baskets and dumped them into a paper bag for me.
“Shhhh,” he said with a wink. “There are always ones for the garbage, any how.”
He handed me a copy of the paper as he loaded our valises into the car and bid me bon voyage.
My je comprends mieux que je parle and canned convo about rugby had made me a friend for life. I promised him I’d be back. He hoped it would be soon.