In my interactions with the French so far, I have come across two types of people when I attempt to speak to them in their native tongue: Those who think Je parle Francais tres bien—I speak French very well—and therefore converse with me freely as if I understand every word they’re saying. They often nod, compliment and help me along the way. Nine times out of 10 these people don’t speak English all that well.
And then there are those who seem to think Je suis bete—I am stupid. These people immediately switch to English at the first sign of my inadequacy—say an unconjugated verb or the misuse of feminine vs. masculine—because they themselves know both languages tres bien, merci beaucoup and wouldn’t dare waste their time with nonsense.
With the former, I walk away feeling satisfied and proud and accomplished. The latter, on the other hand, makes me want to crawl in a corner with a croissant and cry over my spilt mots. (That’d be French for “words.”)
During my recent stay in the charming town of Honfleur, Normandy, I experienced both types in a matter of just 24 hours.
Let’s start with the Language Builder-Upper.
She greeted me at the gate of her bed and breakfast with a quiet smile, holding a black terrier that wouldn’t stop yapping. She had warm eyes and wore her glasses on top of her head, keeping her goldilocks away from her eyes. I surmised she was about 60. Her name was Francoise.
My room wasn’t ready, but she immediately welcomed me into her three-story stone house, which I found with the help of Google Maps after shlepping my unnecessarily heavy duffel bag from a bus station that I clearly thought was closer than it was.
The garden was brimming with white roses and bees buzzing around their petals. She explained, in French, that I could leave my bags in the room despite it still needing cleaning, which she’d do herself.
Pas de probleme, I said, thankful for being able to drop my bags so I could go and explore the port-side town on the Seine where I’d only be for one night.
She asked where I was from, and we spoke a bit about restaurants and where I might like to eat for lunch and dinner as those would be the two meals I’d have out. Breakfast the next morning, on the other hand, was included. She suggested some spots and while I was hesitant to trust her taste at first, the more we talked, and the more I looked around at the decor of this sweet maison that was “just so,” I had a feeing she’d steer me right. She offered to make reservations, which I gladly agreed to, and then off I went for an afternoon of discovery.
Aside from a few museums, along with one devoted to the artist Eugene Bodin and other impressionists who painted the Normandy coast, there wasn’t much to do but walk around the darling cobblestone streets, duck in and out of galleries, eat some fruits de mer (shellfish) at a dockside restaurant and fall asleep on a bench in a lovely park.
I did it all, and then returned a few hours later to enjoy the Rosebud B&B salon. With the windows open to the garden, I was still able to enjoy the delightful scent of Francoise cooking up rhubarb confiture (jam) for tomorrow’s petit dejeuner before retreating to my quaint attic room to get ready for dinner at L’Endroit.
I left for dinner charmed by this woman who I could tell enjoyed talking with her guests, but also understood the importance of privacy and independence.
And then I met the opposite: The Language Barrier—the very young-but thinks-she’s-older-than-she-is twenty-something who when I walked into the restaurant and said “J’ai reservé” immediately flipped her hair IN THAT WAY and said in English, “Right this way.”
Dammit, I thought. She caught me. She knew I wasn’t French.
Thankfully, she wasn’t going to hold it against me and even let me choose my table.
Solo Dining Pet Peeve Number One: When they think they can squeeze you into any ‘ole spot they can, say by the door or the bathroom, lest they give up their best table for just one person.
I scooched into the wall seat of a table for two and she immediately removed the other setting across from me.
Solo Dining Pet Peeve Number Two: When they remove the other setting as if I need reminding that, yes, I AM DINING ALONE.
Alas, I whipped out my book—my security blanket at times like these—and offered up a smile motioning that, “I can sit here alone and eat. And I can—and will—speak to you in French.”
Then she asked—in English—if I had any questions or needed help with the menu.
In truth, I did need a little help, which was annoying. But alas, I continued to ask for it in French.
“Merci,” I responded.
Then I asked her what she recommended and she shrugged.
There was a time when I found people who do this a bit odd. Everyone has different taste buds and preferences, not to mention allergies and intolerances such as gluten, lactose and anything else you can think of these days. What does it matter what your server likes? Plus, won’t they just tell you the most expensive thing on the menu?
But as a frequent solo diner these days, I’ve begun adapting this habit for two reasons: One, in many cases I don’t actually understand what every dish is so I need help clarifying; and Two, it gives me an excuse to have a conversation during what might otherwise be a very solitary dining experience. Even if I don’t choose what they suggest, I want to know what it is and enjoy talking with them about it. I learn, they teach and we all get along!
Except in this case, when I got a can’t-you-just-decide eyeroll and a shrug.
I wanted to shake her and say, “DO BETTER. YOU WORK HERE.”
But she was young, and I still don’t have the confidence to be so bold en Francais.
Eventually, after my indecision led to a bit of awkward silence, she divulged her favorite dish: the leg of lamb that, as luck would have it, had just shown up in front of the man next to me, exuding a tantalizing aroma of sweet spices.
“Je vais prend la,” I said. I’ll take that.
Seemingly satisfied—and relieved that I’d finally made up my mind and stopped asking her questions in French—she took the menu and let me be, before telling me (in English) that the dish would take a while to cook.
Pas de probleme, I said.
Solo Dining Pet Peeve Number Three: When you order and your food shows up about 10 minutes later, presumably because you’re not talking to anyone and need to be kept occupied. And also because they probably want the table back.
As I sat there reading and sipping my Bordeaux, I noticed my candle wasn’t lit. The table for two next to me had theirs lit. Did one person not deserve the added bit of ambience? Was a Party of One not romantic enough?
(Solo Dining Pet Peeve Number Four)
“Ask her,” typed my Mother in a WhatsApp message.
But I couldn’t succumb to the shame.
I know, I know. How could I let this young girl dictate my dining experience like that? It is she who should be ashamed (says the Brene Brown devotee).
I guess there’s only so much someone can speak up about—in a foreign language, no less.
“Perhaps she forgot…” my mom offered, certainly feeling sorry for me all the way on the other side of the Atlantic.
Alas, when my meal arrived, I sat back eating my leg of lamb with an unlit candlestick, trying to ignore her sorrowful stares because, in fact, I was otherwise thoroughly enjoying myself.
When it came time for dessert, I asked her what she prefers again.
Of course, it was the chocolate with peanuts and salted caramel, which under normal circumstances I would’ve ordered.
But I sorta already knew I wanted something apple-based seeing as Normandy grows a lot of them.
She definitely was all, “WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO CHOOSE WHAT I SAID?”
Oui, oui. I get it, young thing. C’est la vie.
The next morning at breakfast, I was so excited to tell Francoise about my dinner. After eating the most delicious homemade rhubarb jam with yoghurt and granola, we got to talking and I told her about my experience, even managing to explain—in very, very broken French—how the server was a bit young and not so helpful, but the food and atmosphere were top notch. She seemed to understand and even agreed with me, explaining how that when she called for the reservation she could sense a bit of immaturity. (Do not ask me about the French word for immaturity. I just understood that’s what she meant.)
We ended up having a lengthy conversation while standing in her kitchen, which is full of glass mason jars of teas and herbs and spices. She spoke all about her daughter who lives in Tokyo and how long she’s had the B&B and whether I date in France and who I write for and whether I have brothers and sisters and…and…and…
It was definitely one of the longest, most in-depth conversations I’ve had in French. It was still on basic topics—nothing heavy like religion or politics—and I did get a little tripped up trying to explain the summary of the book she saw me so engrossed in (The Nightingale), but I didn’t once feel less-than. In fact, it was one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had with a stranger in a long time.
And it got better! When she asked about my departure time, we realized that the train from Deauville wouldn’t match up with the next local bus from Honfleur unless I wanted to sit around in the Deauville train station for 2 hours or give myself only 4 minutes to make the train back to Paris. That’s when she offered to drive me. While it was only 20 minutes, and you’d sort of hope the owner of a B&B would be the type of person to do such a thing, I certainly didn’t expect it. I thanked her profusely and immediately started to think: What in the heck will we have to talk about for another 20 minutes??? In French???
But we managed. There were some silences. But they weren’t awkward. She seemed pleased and proud to allow me to relish in the coastal drive between Honfleur and Deauville in peace; answering questions I had about the cider production or why some of the houses have plants growing on their thatched roofs.
It may not have all come out perfectly, but she understood me. And if there was a barrier between us, she was letting me pass—with a smile and a free ride.