Years ago, my wife and I made our first trip to Paris as newlyweds. It was a delightful and memorable experience. Being film buffs (understatement) we decided to attend a screening of French director Luc Besson’s “The Messenger”, as it was titled in the U.S. In Paris, it was simply “Jeanne d’Arc”, a biopic about the life of Joan of Arc.
We arrived at the very un-mulitplex-like theatre in the St. Germain district, complete with the traditional glass ticket booth. It was crowded, but I finally got my turn and approached the lean, elderly knife of a woman who sold the tickets.
“Deux billets pour Jeanne d’Arc, s’il vous plait,” I said in my basic French.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” she replied firmly, correcting my pronunciation.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” I replied, smiling and sliding my Francs through the hold in the glass.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” she replied, not taking my money, and not smiling back.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” I repeated, adding impatience to my words, as if a tone of contempt would help me sound more French.
This almost comical back-and-forth went on for probably 15 seconds, but it seemed like a lifetime. I’m not sure my pronunciation improved, but eventually she gave up the two tickets, satisfied that I had pronounced the national heroine’s name correctly. Or maybe she just felt better having exhausted another American in Paris. I don’t know.
But the film was great. In English with French subtitles. Popcorn and a soft drink. In Paris. With the love of my life. Cherished memory.
Cut to: last week in a bookstore near the Sorbonne. A Parisian friend of mine had a birthday on the horizon. He’d been helping me with my French, an exercise in saintly patience. But more productively, we’d been discussing philosophy and ethics.
He hadn’t read Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. So I thought the influential philosopher’s work would be a great gift. I went to a university area bookstore in search of the book. It’s a huge bookstore, 3 stories and a basement full of packed shelves. Overwhelmed, I approach a sales clerk.
“Je cherche pour Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne.”
“Oui. Michel de Montaigne.”
“De Montaigne.” He corrected me.
Oh my god, I thought to myself, it’s a national pastime. I almost laughed, but this time, I decided to stay the course. He pronounced the philosopher’s surname. I pronounced it. He pronounced it, implying by his tone that I was not pronouncing it correctly. I replied, as best I could, but without impatience or any sign that I had anything else to do that day but stand with him and play verbal ping pong.
De Montaigne. De Montaigne. De Montaigne. De Montaigne.
I didn’t smile. I didn’t move. He didn’t smile. He didn’t move. I arched an eyebrow because I’d damn well had enough.
“Third floor,” he said in mumbled French. “Merci beaucoup,” I replied without sincerity. My victory, however, was short-lived. When I arrived at the third floor, I learned that the Essays had sold out, but I found them at another store, where the sales clerk quickly typed the philosopher’s name into her computer, cheerfully walked me over to the shelf, pulled the book, and handed it to me with a warm smile.
“Michel de Montaigne,” she said appreciatively.
I looked at her and smiled, grateful but wary. I wasn’t going down this road again.