Sunday, October 30, 2011

"....Not good enough for me to understand.”

Nearly thirty years ago in Paris, I was walking alone on a sunny May afternoon and I decided to have a beer in a small local café near the Boulevard Saint-Germain on the Left Bank. Business was rather slow and there was a table available outside along the sidewalk. I was seated, the waiter offered the menu and I chose a beer from the Alsace region.

It’s important in this story to remember that the Alsace has flip-flopped a number of times between France and Germany depending on who won what war, but the Alsace has been French since the end of World War II.)

I enjoyed the beer, the sunshine, the people walking by, and my French-language newspaper. The major news stories were about another bombing in the Middle East, something that, sadly, hasn't changed much in all these years.

I’ve always liked studying and using languages. My high school and college French really isn't that bad - I’m a little proud to say that the best backhanded compliment I ever had about my French was from a French couple I sat next to on a flight somewhere. In conversation, they knew my accent was not from France, but they asked if I was from Quebec, at least thinking I was some sort of native francophone. They were surprised that I was from California.)

Now, back to the Paris café.

After a longish time, most of the other customers had left. The waiter brought the bill and returned inside. I looked at the bill and it was double the price of anything that I had seen on the menu.

The waiter didn't return, so I went inside and there by themselves were the barman and the waiter leaning on the bar.

In French I said to the waiter and the barman: "Excusez-moi... j'ai une question à propos de l'addition" ... ("I have a question about the bill") and explained that the bill seemed to be double the price from the menu.

They both scowled in Gallic, pained indifference and their body language was right out of an old Casablanca-style movie and looking for an argument. They both looked at me, leaned forward, elbows on the bar, then crossed and slapped their hands slowly on their upper arms in a comic pose as they listened to me.

Continuing in French, I pointed to the prices painted inside on the wall and continued to ask for a correction of the bill.

The waiter countered in French, "Well Monsieur, you have ordered a special foreign beer at a higher price." to which I pointed out that the Alsace had been returned again to France in 1945 and was not foreign at all.

Then the waiter pulled out his argument stopper. Still in French, he said, “Well then, Monsieur, I am sorry, but your French is not good enough for me to understand.” He wouldn’t hear anything more.

I was stunned. Nonplussed. It’s funny but you can’t actually tell someone that they understand you. Understanding is up to them.

So, stripped of the ability to argue, I fumed a bit and paid the double bill.

I went back out to my table, enjoyed a little more of the golden sunshine and read the whole French newspaper, not really caring if I was staying a little longer than might be expected of a customer.

When I finally decided to leave, I guess I felt that I had paid for the nice glass too, so I kept it.

Two blocks down the street, the waiter came running up and in English he said, “Hey, you can’t take that glass.”

I turned, looked at him, and replied sadly, “I’m sorry, but your English is not good enough for me to understand.”

He couldn’t say a word and I kept the glass.