Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Idiomatic Idiocy

One of the discomfiting but eventually salutary aspects of temporary expatriation is the feeling of being an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, and the only person in Paris who doesn’t know the drill when it comes to getting in the right line at the post office or even validating a single bus ticket. I live a pretty comfortable and secure life in the daily run of things, and it is doubtless a good thing to experience at least a whiff of what millions of the hard-working poor throughout the world must experience as a nearly permanent condition.

I am in theory an expert on French literature, and I can document that claim with two published books about the Roman de la Rose, the most important vernacular product of medieval France and numerous periodical essays. I have read pretty widely in French literature. Despite an appalling accent that my interlocutors do little to ignore, I can on a daily basis get by in conversation, especially if the conversation is about Gothic architecture or Abelard’s linguistic theories. Trying to buy an electric fuse in a hardware story is another story.

Of course language exists within culture, and when cultural alterity meets linguistic alterity the results can be stressful. I mentioned proudly in my last post that I had already successfully signed up for the local swimming pool. But when I showed up at seven the next morning, my proud achievement in buying the admission ticket was reduced to ashes. The procedure that one has to go through actually to get into a French swimming pool would be worth a post of its own, but this one must be about how I failed to get in at first try. I negotiated the byzantine security system, which involves the acrobatics of changing clothes in a closet designed to hold a midget’s wardrobe, and arrived at poolside, goggles in hand, wearing my quick-dry trunks labeled “Colgate Swimming.” Before I could take the plunge, however, no fewer than three of the civil servants whose job it appears to be to support the civil servants supporting the four lifeguards, joined by at least a half dozen of the swimmers themselves, threw themselves upon me in indignation. They explained in clear if impatient terms, and in several languages including English, that I was under no circumstances to defile the pool wearing “baskets” (i.e., basketball shorts) and, worse yet, without a head covering. I must have proper swimming gear. Such gear was obviously demanded, as should have been clear even to one of my nationality, by l’hygiène. As a matter of fact the hygienic condition of my midget’s closet had approximated that of a minimally hosed out garbage dumpster, but under the circumstances I lacked both the ego and the linguistic resources to point that out. I retreated in confusion, perhaps--to attempt an epic simile--like a man who, at his boss’s funeral, has loudly broken wind midway through a rendition of “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”.

But I recovered during the day. When in Rome do as the Romans do. Get the right swimming accoutrements. The place I could do this most easily, my daughter told me, would be at a mega-sporting goods shop called Decathlon, of which there are two or three branches in Paris, the nearest being across the river on the avenue Wagram. This place, four or five stops up the number 6 Métro line, is a very good address and full of classy people in search of classy (and expensive) sportswear. If I may indulge my appetite for stereotypes, I have noted in the past that when the French bourgeoisie takes to the ski slope or the tennis court, they do it wearing only garments in which athletic function has been accommodated to the requirements of French haute couture. In the past I have sometimes wondered where they even got such stuff, because it wasn’t J. C. Penny’s. Now I know: 26, avenue Wagram.

It’s also the kind of place where you have to have been a debutante in order to join the sales staff. Tall, slim, elegant, aloof females—with the fourth of those adjectives bearing most of the phrase’s stress—stand around the sales stations chatting with each other, expertly avoiding eye contact with the potential customers. I summed the situation up in an instant, and little-red-hen like, set out to do it myself. In fact, I found men’s swimming suits with little difficulty. There were approximately two hundred thousand of them in two slightly different styles (both of which had the feel to the finger of prosthetic devices one might wear, concealed by over garments, to assuage the discomfort of an inguinal hernia). But there were three different prices—the top of the line being 60 Euros. Yes you heard me. Sixty. Euros. I immediately shifted my attention to the bottom rung which, while still pretty costly did not actually involve a second mortgage.

chapeau de piscine, also known as abri de piscine

Mission half accomplished; now for the couverture. But here was a mystery. Though there were rank upon rank of swimming shorts, I could find not a single swimming cap. I must anticipate the end of the story by giving you in advance the perfectly explicable cause of my difficulty. For the swimming caps when I eventually was led to them gave no indication to the naked eye of being swimming caps. They—again, thousands of them--were all tightly packed in little shiny, square cardboard boxes that looked, perhaps, like a rather ambitious week-end’s supply of condoms. That, too, was condign, since wearing one of them makes you feel like you’re practicing safe sex with your head, but I digress.

I knew that it was not possible that Decathlon had no swimming caps but, temporarily stumped, I had to face the terrors of accosting one of the ice maidens. As I approached her I realized that although I knew the rather odd French word for a swimming suit (maillot—after the tight weave, as in chain-mail, believe it or not) I didn’t know the word for the accompanying headgear. I therefore made a logical punt—almost always fatal in matters idiomatic. I was having some difficulty, I told her, in locating the chapeaux de piscine. This at least captured her attention, and she told me that they didn’t sell them, and that I should try Bricolage France--the local version of Lowe's or Home Depot. They only dealt in swimming gear. “Pas de chapeau?” I asked, pointing at my head. She laughed out loud. What I had said was apparently so rich as to deserve to be shared with another ice maiden. “Hey, Marthe, this gentleman wants a chapeau de piscine--for his head.” More laughter. Then she led me to the bonnets de bain in their nice little pharmaceutical boxes.
  • bonnet de bain, also maille (tattoo 1000 euros en plus)