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Like a Hooker in a Foreign Land

As I walked by the grey-haired little old man with warm brown eyes and weathered tan skin, I couldn’t help myself but to say, “Bon soir” with a smile. I was a alone and so was he. I was wearing my wedge heels and short shorts and a black lacy top and a black backpack purse on my back. Oh my God–an overnight sack perhaps? His eyes seized up at me in quick confusion, then darted away. No return greeting, no friendly nod, no hint of an upturned smile.

Mon Dieu. I had frightened the moules frites out of him.

Did he just find my manner of saying “good evening” to him–a complete stranger–as totally odd? Or was it worse? Did he feel disgusted, as if he had been approached by a lady of the evening?

Oh no, I felt myself backtracking. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just an American girl walking the plaza at Carnon Ouest (just south of Montpellier, France) at a quarter till midnight, desperately looking for a restaurant that’s still serving dinner. My kids are just over there, playing by the arcade with their father. These heels and shorts and dressy top? I just wanted to look pretty like the the other, French ladies.

But it was too late. The man was gone and I could never explain. How could I convey that this is  just what we American’s do–smile and say hello–especially in a lazy beach town like this one? How could I help him to see that a smile and a greeting is an American’s way of connecting to others, if even in the simplest way? How could I tell him that I just thought he looked sweet and I wanted to send him some well wishes?

I couldn’t. I had to live instead with that momentary feeling of being seen as terribly different.I had to accept that feeling, if even for a few brief moments, of seeming like, if not a prostitute, a pariah in a foreign land.

Let me count the moments: The nanny who thought I was crazy for serving my children carrots for afternoon snack (why would I, when croissants with jam and pain au chocolat are so plentiful?) The grocery cashier telling me three times over till I understood that I needed to leave the line and go weigh and tag my own produce. Every other vendor in town who watches me sort and sift through foreign coins and bills for too many minutes at the checkout, as if I’ve been tasked with the job of counting the country’s gross national product by hand.

On some days, it is totally clear to me that I don’t fit in in France–like the evening the waiter said “hello” to me in English right off the bat. Was it really that obvious? But I had chosen to wear the strappy sandals, not the ultra-comfortable Keenes. My hair was in a pinned twist, not a ponytail.

Merd! I guess my Americanism shone right through me. Maybe I smiled warmly at him at first glance like I’d done to the grey-haired gentleman–I no longer remember. If I did, however, this time the kids were with me, and there was no doubt what it was that I really wanted.

Tarte tatin for the little boy. A banana split for me and my little girl.

So what if when the order came the waiter put the goofy ice cream sundae with it’s whimsical swirls of chocolate sauce and chantilly in front of my son and the tres sophistique apple tart in front of myself? I’m just a mixed-up American who switched the plates around before his very eyes and then giggled.

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2 Responses to “Like a Hooker in a Foreign Land”

  1. Loved this! XO and welcome back. Thanks for sharing your trip with us. You’re a great writer.

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