“I have les iPhones!”
You know what smart people do when they move to a foreign country? They plan on getting a bank account and a phone in their new country. You know what I did when I moved to Paris? Neither. This is my story. (Cue the Law and Order intro music.)
Paris may very well be one of the most magical places on the planet, but I’m quickly learning that all the unmagical, pain-in-the-ass everyday crap you have to deal with still happens here. Like making an American phone work on a French network, for example. Definitely not magical.
It’s Monday, the day after Easter Sunday. This is day three of my new life, and I haven’t had any luck unlocking the SIM card in my American phone. I haven’t been able to text friends or make phone calls since I left New York, my last stop before Paris. Just five days ago, I was sitting on a bench in Central Park calling friends to say goodbye before I left the cocoon of American WiFi, oblivious to all the luxuries and independence that accessing the Internet on a mobile device afforded me. I realize now that I took them for granted, these communication niceties, and now they’re gone.
In a denial-laden haze of 2003-ness, I’d thought I’d be able to live with just a laptop for a year, emailing and Skyping friends from the comfort of my flat or a cafe. But after two frustrating days of trying (and failing) to sync with friends back home in their time zones at the times that I’m in my flat or a cafe, I realize that a phone is the most important tool in bridging my old life with my new one, connecting me to the people I know and love back in America and to the people I want to know and love here in France. A phone will be my guide to everyday tasks that will turn me into an authentic Parisienne, like mapping my way to a pharmacy, a hardware store, or someplace really important, like a fromagerie.
I decide to take the financial plunge and buy a brand new French iPhone. There’s an Apple store right behind the Paris Opera House, just about a ten-minute walk from my house. Going there will be number one on my agenda full of nothing for day three.
On the short trek from my house to the Apple store, I see the open-for-business version of my neighborhood in person, and it’s filled with sights that are even more spectacular to my California eyes than Google Earth could ever have revealed, things that people who live here probably take for granted.
Just steps from my flat is a dirty bronze sculpture of Molière overlooking a murky fountain and a dirty concrete ledge that someone is currently passed out on. There are patisserie windows filled with nothing but pale, delicate looking meringues and pastel pyramids of macarons. There are impossibly beautiful, thin, and fashionable women everywhere, shopping at what look to be expensive boutiques. Groups of friends gather at the counters of les tabacs smoking and talking.
And then there are the sounds. What would pass as mere noise in any other city is a symphony to my ears here in Paris. The quiet bells of buses warning of their approach, the chorus of ancient church bells chiming at the top of every hour all over the city, the gentle whir of bike wheels spinning by me and the clickety-clack of their changing gears. So many languages being spoken at once my brain can’t begin to identify what they all are. And all of it at a low volume, a civilized and quiet French hum.
As I make my way into the Apple store, I look for an English-speaking salesperson to help me with my purchase. I realized on my first day here that I’d overestimated my handle on the French language. Once upon a time, after four years of high school French and three more in college, I was a pretty fluent speaker. But fluency requires practice, and I haven’t spoken French regularly for at least 20 years. Living here, I know I can get it back quickly, but right now, with my future happiness and social life dependent on this iPhone, I need some help.
I find it surprisingly quickly. I talk briefly with a young clerk about my phone options, then he disappears to fetch me one from the stash in the back and begins to ring me up. I’m so lost in my thoughts of how connected to the world I’m about to be that he has to ask twice for my French bank account information.
Oh, that. A bank account is a little detail I haven’t attended to, and like an iPhone, hadn’t planned on getting.
Since I’m not a French citizen, he tells me, I’ll need a bank account or a utility bill in order to buy a phone. My utilities are included in my rent, so I won’t ever receive a bill, which means my only option is a bank account. My sales associate tells me that this slight setback of not having a bank account is c’est pas grave — no big deal. I just need to open an account and come back with the paperwork to prove I have it and then I can buy my phone. Très facile, easy peezy. With a dismissive motion of his hand — there are iPads, Macbook Airs, and other devices to be sold, after all — he points me in the direction of a few nearby banks I can try.
No problem, I think. I’m a freakin’ pro at France by now. After jumping through all the paperwork hoops of applying for a long-stay visa and renting an apartment pretty much sight unseen from the other side of the world, I think I’m ready for whatever curve balls a French bank throws at me.
That confidence was my first mistake.
_ _ _
I walk into the HSBC bank across the street from the Apple store and say confidently, “Je voudrais ouvrir un compte, s’il vous plaît. ” I would like to open an account, please. Let’s do this, France.
“Bien sûr!” the polished French woman says as she beams back at me. She’s dressed in a pencil skirt, a fitted blouse, and a pair of tall, nude pumps that make her slim legs look even longer. I’m in jeans and a plain white t-shirt. “J’ai besoin de votre passeport et une facture de téléphone. ” She needs my passport and a phone bill.
I tell her in French that I have my passport but not a phone bill; I need the bank account in order to get a phone, which means I don’t have a phone bill. I give her what I hope is my most genuine smize — a smile with my eyes, because my French friend, Mathieu, who lives in Barcelona, has prepped me that French people aren’t big mouth smilers. “Use the eyes, Kray-becca,” He’d told me, rolling the ‘R’ in my name extra hard for emphasis. I do it now, trying hard to bring this woman into my confidence and convey how ridiculous this whole situation is with just my gaze. Isn’t this just the funniest thing you’ve ever heard? A phone bill! I need a phone bill to get a bank account, but I need a bank account to get a phone. This is some crazy Gift of the Magi shit, am I right?
“Malheureusement, vous avez besoin d’une facture de téléphone pour ouvrir un compte.” Unfortunately, I need the bill, she tells me as she cooly ignores my smizing. She suggests I try another bank, which I do — three more, to be exact — all with the same results: no phone bill, no bank account.
I decide to rethink my bank account strategy over lunch. With a glass of wine.
_ _ _
I find the closest cafe with the fewest tourists and collapse into a comfortable booth inside. Who knew that getting a phone and opening a French bank account would be so stressful? I knew there’d be hurdles once I got here, but I hadn’t planned on getting a bank account; I’d thought I would just use the debit card connected to my American account and just get on with my French life.
I order lunch: a small green salad and a half carafe of white wine. It’s definitely going to blow the five-euro lunch budget I’ve given myself for this outing, but I decide that if I want to prove my residency, it’s time to start acting — and eating — like a real French woman.
Without a phone or a lunch companion, there’s nothing to do but take in the scenery and sit with my thoughts. It’s quiet — in this restaurant, but also in my world. It’s a little before noon here in Paris, not quite 3 a.m. in San Francisco and just before 6 a.m. on the east coast. Pretty much everyone I care about in the world is still fast asleep, and I’m separated from most of them by an ocean as I sit in this foreign city full of strangers. It’s a sense of disconnection I haven’t experienced before, a specific kind of isolation that raises valid yet panicky questions: What if there’s a terrorist attack here in Paris? What if someone starts shooting people in this restaurant? What if an asteroid hits earth and I need to get in touch with someone? What if, right now, there’s a massive earthquake destroying California or a deadly tornado ripping through Kentucky and I don’t even know about it? What if a plane is flying into the Chrysler Building in New York? What if, god forbid, someone else in my blood or urban family is dead and no one can find me to tell me?
Who in the world knows exactly where I am right now? No one. Not a single soul.
I top off my wine. I’m being ridiculous. I’m not in the wilderness or a third-world country; I’m in Paris and I’m only temporarily out of touch. I need to get myself together so I can focus on my bank account conundrum.
I just need to convince someone, somehow, in a language that I haven’t spoken in twenty years, that I’m not a financial risk, that this unemployed, middle-aged woman is responsible enough to warrant circumventing the French bureaucracy.
My mother had to do this once. It was in Kentucky, and it was all in English, but the stakes for her way more than just a phone.
_ _ _
“There it is — Mom, stop!” I’d been visiting my mother in Lexington one summer and we’d decided to drive by the house that we’d moved into in 1976, after my parents’ divorce was final and after living with my grandparents for about a year. We stopped in front of our old house and stared at it silently for a few minutes, like two badass lady cops on a stakeout.
“It seems smaller doesn’t it?” Mom had asked me after she stared at the house for a few minutes. “How’s that even possible?” She’d sounded as disappointed as I felt.
“It does,” I’d agreed with her. “Maybe it just seemed bigger because so much happened here?”
I looked at the two concrete steps that led up to the concrete stoop in front of the plain black front door. I thought about all the Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings I’d sat there, waiting to see if my dad would actually show up for his one court-appointed custody day and night. Back then, in Kentucky, that’s what dads got; there was none of this 50/50 shared custody business. Which is probably good, because it was pretty much a 15 percent situation in terms of how often he showed up for the 10 hours a week he got me.
“Was I upset when he didn’t come?” I’d asked her. She’d known immediately, of course, the “he” I was talking about.
“You seemed more relieved than anything,” she’d said. “You didn’t like going to a new church every time.”
Married, my mother said that my father had never showed any interest in attending the Southern Baptist church our family belonged to. Divorced, his interest in the church had been, shall we say, rekindled, perhaps having something to do with all the attractive and single Sunday school teachers around town, godly women who didn’t mind lending a listening ear to an attractive man in post-divorce pain. He eagerly answered whatever it was that called him back to God. Even with his spotty record of picking me up, we must’ve hit the better part of all the Baptist and Methodist churches in Lexington, a veritable Bluegrass sampler platter of faith and devotion. We went to so many different churches that eventually I began hiding out in the bathroom instead of going to Sunday school. A bad plan because whatever Sunday school teacher he was dating ratted me out as missing.
Being the new kid at Sunday school sucked, partly because all the other kids had pretty much grown up together and I didn’t know anyone. But also because my parents’ divorce had caused gaping holes in my church attendance, and therefore, my biblical and Ten Commandment knowledge. Knowing both was — and perhaps still is — its own special kind of commandment in the South, so I had no handle on any of it. Who were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John anyway, and where was Moses in that equation? Why was it a big deal that Mary was a virgin — what was a virgin anyway? Why were all of Jesus’s words typed in red ink in the bibles I read? Why not make just one big book instead of a New Testament versus an Old Testament? Why was everyone scared of what happened in Revelations? Why did everyone hold up poster boards with John 3:16 on them at football games on TV every Sunday?
“Remember your wallpaper?” She’d interrupted my thoughts, bringing me out of the deep, dark rabbit hole of Custody Sundays, where I played the role of Sunday School outcast.
“Remember? That was the best day of my life,” I’d said laughing.
My mother had been worried about how the divorce and all the change was affecting me, and my father not showing up 85 percent of the time was only part of it. We’d left my grandparents’ house and moved into a new house in a new school district, which meant I had to start all over again in a different school. I didn’t know a soul and was being bullied by a little boy who thought hitting a girl was normal. My father had started dating a new woman who went to a scary kind of church I’d never been to until I met her. She was a real-life, speak-in-tongues, snake-handling Pentecostal who was also named Wanda. (You gotta give my dad credit for consistency.) I started having nightmares and even walking in my sleep.
It was a lot of adjustment at once for a six-year old, so Mom decided to surprise me with something good. One day, when I came home from school, all four walls of my tiny bedroom were covered in new wallpaper that had five different versions of Scooby Doo. It felt like I’d died and gone to heaven — or at the very least, to the inside of the Mystery Machine.
“This was the first place I ever lived that was all mine,” she’d said dreamily. “And it cost me twenty-five thousand dollars.”
“What? That’s how much a garage costs in San Francisco!” I’d said to her
“I can’t believe I got it,” she’d gone on. “I’d just started the first job I’d ever had — I’d never even had my own credit card let alone any credit history. But there I was, begging a man at a bank to loan me twenty-five thousand dollars when my paychecks didn’t amount to a hill of beans. I was scared to death.”
“How come?” I asked.
“We couldn’t live with Mother and Daddy forever — we needed our own house, not a spare bedroom in their house.”
She went on. “That banker didn’t think I was a smart risk and he was right!” She’d laughed. “But I had to make sure he knew there was no way in hell I’d ever miss a payment.”
“What did you tell him?” I’d asked, hanging on her every word. I’d never heard this story before.
“Well, first, I told him I was a mother. Raising three kids and running a household felt like a full-time job to me. I bought all the groceries, I paid all the bills, I cooked all the meals, I made all the doctor appointments, and I kept the house clean. I had a small budget and I made it work —I made the dress I was wearing that day and I even told him that, which might have been too far. I just wanted him to know that it wasn’t easy, but I did it. I told him I ran a business, only my business was raising three kids and they’d turned out great.”
“What did he say?” I’d asked, but I already knew.
“He said ‘I’m sorry, Ms. Toomey.’ And that was it. He wasn’t having it, so I tried something else. I told him that I worked for your dad’s upholstery business and that I made all the slip covers. So while it might’ve looked to him like I’d had no job at all, I’d actually had two. And three kids on top of that.” She smiled, still to that day pleased with herself for that one.
“And?” I asked again.
“After that, he didn’t say anything, but he didn’t say no. So, I pulled out your picture — the one of you in your little pink gingham dress with the pigtails and no front teeth — and said, “This is my daughter, Becky. I want her to have a house, just like her brothers did.” she smiled at me sheepishly.
Had my mother really used me to get a loan? I couldn’t imagine that ploy working now or even then, but I felt a little thrill at the thought of her loving me enough to use me as a pawn.
“I think he felt sorry for me,” she’d said. “But I didn’t care. Getting that house meant everything. It meant that I could do it — all of it. The job, being a single mother, being divorced. And I had to do it. That house was the missing piece. Without it, I was screwed.”
I knew exactly what she meant.
_ _ _
I remember this as I sit in Paris on a beautiful spring day, eating my salad and half baguette.
I know that my privileged and tiny hardship is nowhere in the same stratosphere as being a struggling single mother in dire need of a house to provide stability for her second-grader. But the thought of my mom sitting across the desk from some banker, determined to prove how responsible she was to get her house, inspired me. She needed to make a home and so did I.
So, a half-carafe of Sancerre and a posthumous pep talk from my mom later, I’m ready. I’m not buying a house, after all, just an iPhone. I need one and so I will have one. I will open a bank account today. I’ve moved across the world alone. I’ve filled out the piles of paperwork required for a long-stay French visa. I packed my entire old life into a dark corner of a dank storage space in a questionable San Francisco neighborhood so I can be here. Like my mother, I’m a woman who makes things happen. If I have to go to every bank in Paris, I will.
I head to the bathroom to make myself look more … what? Bank-account worthy? I’ve already failed three times at eye smiling and channeling trustworthy and it’s only 1 p.m. Paris time, so I need to figure out how to make myself look like someone deserving of a place to put her small amount of American-turned-French money. I brush my hair, check my teeth, apply some lipstick, and walk across the street to the first bank I see.
_ _ _
During lunch, I’d practiced my opening line to make it a little softer, a little more polite. With the help of that half-carafe of wine, I deliver it with confidence. “Est-ce qu’il ya quelqu’un que je peux parler à propos de l’ouverture d’un compte?” Is there someone I can speak with about opening an account?
The woman at the front desk nods and disappears around a corner, then returns and tells me it will be just a moment. I relax a little. My French is working. I got this. All I needed was to be around French people. Go, me! I’m totally fluent again.
I should’ve started with wine, I think to myself. I should have —
“Bonjour, madame. You wish to open an account? My name is Monsieur Richard.” He pronounces it Ree-Shard, with only the softest hint of ‘d’ at the end.
Standing before me is quite possibly the best looking man I’ve seen in the three days since I entered France, definitely the best looking one who’s actually spoken directly to me or held me in his gaze for longer than two seconds. He is tall, dark, and handsome come to life, with rugged five o’clock shadow on his cheeks and bright blue eyes that stare at me as he waits for me to answer his question, which is in English. I wonder if my mother’s banker was this handsome.
I’m almost too stunned to speak, let alone speak in French, but I give it a go.
“Bonjour. Yes. Je voudrais ouvrir un compte.” I feel my face turn bright red. For some reason, the thought of this handsome man handling my French financial affairs is unnerving, as if he’s about to give me a pap smear instead of open a checking account for me.
As I follow him to his office, he says to me, “I … My English is … I speak not good English.”
“It’s okay!” I say too enthusiastically in English. “Je peux parler français si vous parlez lentement.” (“I can speak French if you speak slowly.”) This seems optimistic, but maybe. We’ll see.
“You’re living in France?”
“Yes, for one week now,” I lie, extending my time here by four days. I need to look like a mainstay in my new community.
“How long will you stay?”
“Until next year. I have a … ?” I pause because I don’t know the word for “flat.” Instead I try “apartment” with a French accent. It works; he nods and smiles. “I have an apartment through the end of December for now.”
“And what do you do here?”
“Je suis ecrivaine.” The French love a writer. I’m not Sartre, but I decide to work the writer angle as hard as I can.
“Ahhh, d’accord, très bien.” he drums his long, suntanned fingers on the desk. His hands are well manicured, not a bloody hangnail in sight. “What do you write?”
“Food and travel mostly,” I say. “Mais, j’ecris un livre aussi.” I’m also writing a book.
“Très bien. Donc … you would like an account. I will need your passport and a copy of your phone bill.” He turns to his computer screen, opens a few windows, and holds his fingers over the keyboard, poised to type in my information.
I take a deep breath and say slowly in English, “I don’t have a French phone yet. That’s why I need a bank account. But I do have my passport, a signed lease, and a long-stay visa.” I didn’t have the chance to mention all my documentation to the other banks before they pushed me out the door and I hope that it’s a selling point here.
He looks at me blankly, so I simply say, “Je n’ai pas un téléphone. Mais je voudrais un téléphone.” (“I don’t have a phone, but I want a phone.” I’m incredibly eloquent.)
“So you don’t have a phone?” I take him posing this as a question rather than an outright refusal as a small sign of hope. I seize my window of opportunity, just like my mom had.
“J’ai un téléphone américain,” I say with a smile before remembering that the French are not a smiling people. “… mais pas un telephone francais. Then: “And I need one since I plan on staying here for a long time.” At least that’s what I want to say, but all I can come up with in French is “J’adore la France.”
My stomach knots up as I wait for him to respond. He’s the gatekeeper to my new life and my French independence, the human CDG that will transport me to my future. I need to convince him how much I love his country so that he knows I’m not some fly-by-night expat. Even though it’s only been three days, even though I was just feeling like the only person on the planet about an hour before this, something in me already knows that I want to stay in Paris for as long as I can, maybe even longer than a year, maybe forever. I want to make Paris home for a while, but I don’t yet have the words to say all that so I keep quiet.
He stares at me for what feels like forever. I stare back, thinking of my mother’s high stakes and how she must have been a thousand times more nervous. I’m not eye smiling now; I’m eye talking, eye pleading, eye screaming, wishing I had the persuasive equivalent of a picture of a cute little girl like my mother had.
Trust me. I’m good for it, I say with my eyes. I swear to god, I’m one of the most responsible people I know. I think I’m late if I’m not ten minutes early. I’ve loved your country for more than half my life — I’m practically one of you. I need this phone. Please.
“And you have your lease with you?” I hand over my lease and watch as he inspects it, slowly rubbing the ever-so-slight five o’clock shadow on his cheeks and chin as he considers what to do.
“You must to improve your French to live here,” He says clumsily, sounding annoyed.
“I know. And I’m working on it — I used to be fluent. I’m going to meet people in a conversation exchange to practice.” Again, that’s what I say in my head, but what I say out loud is this: “Je sais, et je vais essayer. Très … ” I know, and I’m going to try. Very — I don’t remember the word for “hard,” so I trail off after “très,” feeling pathetic.
He stares at me for a good twenty seconds, considering what to do. He’s so handsome that it almost hurts to maintain eye contact — it’s like looking directly at the sun. My brain spins into a flash daydream of us kissing, rolling around naked and sweaty in his bed that’s outfitted with crisp, white French linens, laughing at that time we first met when my French was so bad. Oh, silly Rebecca! Trying to open a French bank account with no phone bill! That was très drôle.
“Donc, j’aurai besoin de votre passeport pour commencer,” he says with a sigh.
“I’m going to need your passport to get started.”
_ _ _
Forty-five unclear and Google Translate-filled minutes later, I have my keys to the French kingdom: a checking account. This is a huge first step on my road to making France home and I feel overwhelmed with happiness at accomplishing this simple task I took for granted in America.
It’s a small miracle that he’s opened the account for me; as it turns out, I don’t have the original document of my signed lease with me, just a copy. Same with my long-stay visa: I have a copy, but not the original. I don’t have a phone bill to prove residency and I don’t have an electric bill as alternate means of proving it. I have nothing I’m supposed to have to get this checking account. Why he did it, I’ll never know, but I’m incredibly grateful.
I begin packing up my bag and Monsieur Richard asks about my phone preference, since he knows a phone is my motivation for getting an account.
“So, you will go to buy an iPhone now?”
“Yes, tomorrow,” I tell him, keeping up the trend of short sentences.
“Why an iPhone? Why not another phone, comme ça?” He pulls an old-school flip phone from a box on the credenza behind his desk.
It’s a good question, really, and truth be told, I could get by with just a flip phone. iPhones have been everywhere for at least four years at this point, but flip phones still exist in 2012, and that would definitely save me money. But I’ve sold myself hard on the mapping benefits of an iPhone since they’ll help me get around a little easier and I won’t have to rely on my challenged eyesight to focus in on the small type of my Plan de Paris map book. Plus, I can Skype friends with an iPhone no matter where I am.
I don’t know how to communicate the true depth of my iPhone desire using my limited French vocabulary, so I just say in French, “I want to talk to my friends often.”
But he spends ten minutes more trying to convince me to buy a non-iPhone. I finally understand his persistence when he pulls out a laminated sheet of flip phones and their corresponding monthly costs. “I can sell you a phone that costs much less.” Now it makes sense — well, sort of. He’s in sales, too, apparently. But why is my banker selling phones?
“Non, I want an iPhone.”
We go back and forth on the benefits of me buying an iPhone versus a flip phone and vice versa and why I want to spend my hard-earned money on such an indulgence when I can save money and just talk on a regular phone. Using Google Translate and broken French, I tell him every reason I want an iPhone, and using Google Translate and broken English, he counters with a corresponding case for a flip phone.
The whole exchange is maddening — a banker putting the hard sell on me to buy a flip phone, of all things — but I don’t stop it because I’m actually enjoying having someone to talk to.
Finally, he understands that no matter what he says, I’m getting an iPhone. He sighs and pulls out a laminated sheet of iPhones and their corresponding monthly costs with the various French carriers. I wonder why he’s been holding out on this information and suddenly remember another nugget of wisdom from my friend Mathieu: French people love to argue.
He turns to his keyboard and begins feverishly typing into the Google Translate box. “I might be able to get you an iPhone next seek,” he says, and though he’s reading it from the screen, he says the words quickly, excitedly, as though his life depends on it. Mine actually does, sort of.
“I won’t know until Tuesday morning if any iPhones have been delivered to us. If any arrive, you’ll only have about one hour to come collect your phone. What do you think?”
What do I think? I think that isn’t how it works at Verizon Wireless or Chase Manhattan Bank back in the good old United States of America, that’s what I think. I think Monsieur Richard is mixed up in some sort of iPhone scam with the French mafia.
Also, I think, it’s Monday. I had visions of Skyping with my friend Shane on my new phone this afternoon. I wanted to sit in the Tuileries and show him my neighborhood park.
Now it’s my turn to stare hard at Monsieur R as I weigh my options.
Finally, I say slowly, in a mix of French and English, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll go to the Apple store in the morning. If they can’t give me a better price, I’ll wait until Tuesday for your phone – but no longer. If yours is the better price and you have phones on Tuesday, I’ll buy one from you.”
Even though I’m not sure he understands all of it, he smiles because he’s close to making a sale and winning an argument. It’s the smile of a man who’s just said something really clever to a woman in a bar and has convinced her to go home with him. It’s the smile of a man who’s about to get laid.
If only, I think.
“Very good. À demain, Madame Brun.” I’ll speak with you tomorrow, Miss Brown.
The next day at the Apple store, I discover two things: 1) that Apple’s iPhones are more expensive than Monsieur Richard’s and 2) the paperwork I brought on the off chance that they were cheaper isn’t sufficient to buy a phone. To buy a phone at the Apple store, I’ll need a printed check, which, in my estimation, will take anywhere from five days to twenty-five years to get in France.
I email Monsieur Richard and tell him that I’ll take his Tuesday iPhone option, but that I also want to put in an order for printed checks, too, in case Tuesday comes and his iPhones aren’t available. He replies immediately and confirms, telling me to call him no later than 9:30 am on Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, I receive an email at 8:30 a.m., one hour before I’m due to call him, with the subject line, “J’ai les iPhones! Urgent!” — I have the iPhones! I respond and ask what time I can come; we agree to meet at 11 a.m. I’m giddy at the thought of having mobile communication in less than three hours.
But when I arrive, he tells me my phone will not be ready to pick up until Friday, possibly not even until next Tuesday. Apparently, there are no actual phones today, only the promise of phones that will be delivered next Tuesday. I ask him why his email said he had a phone and he looks confused. “I did not say this, Madame Brun.”
I’m confused by this, but I shouldn’t be. This is France, after all, where, according to my French expert Mathieu, pretty much nothing happens until at least the third try.
Friday comes and goes without a new iPhone, but on Tuesday morning, I receive another excited email telling me that my iPhone is ready to pick up.
This time, I do not get excited. I resist the urge to engage in the fantasy of talking or Skyping from an Adirondack chair in the Tuileries. Instead, I ready myself to wait another week, possibly two, maybe even a month. I’ve lived in France for almost two weeks and I’m already jaded and hardened by French process. All that’s left to complete my transition is for me to take up smoking. C’est comme ça, that’s just how it is, I say to myself with a sigh and an internal French accent.
But when I arrive, I’m pleased to find that my phone is actually there. I almost can’t believe it. Monsieur R greets me, then sits down and begins adjusting the settings on my phone.
Hoping it’s appropriate to use “tu” versus “vous” at this point, our third meeting, I say to him, “Tu es très gentil, mais je peux le faire.” You’re very nice, but I can do it. I assume that my banker has better things to do than adjust the settings on my iPhone, but he ignores me and continues tinkering on my phone, getting everything in order for me.
I sit while he works, offering up conversation now and again in French after I’ve had time to formulate the sentences in my head. He takes his time responding, formulating his English answer carefully before talking.
It’s nice, this time with him, despite the fact that it’s probably the slowest, most boring conversation in the history of conversation. Even so, talking with him makes me realize how much I’ve missed having actual conversations and I realize as he works that I’ve been feeling a little lonely.
A few minutes later, he declares my phone ready to use. We stand, ready to part ways.
“How is the book coming?” he asks me in English.
I haven’t written a word since I’ve been in Paris, but continuing to work the writer angle, I say, “Très bien, merci.”
“I think my English improves after talking with you so much,” he says proudly.
“Yes, I think you’re right,” I answer with a smile, blatantly ignoring my rule not to smile at French people. I can’t help it though. I can’t believe what he’s done for me. He has no idea how much this stupid phone means to me.
“Do you have friends in Paris?” he asks me, suddenly sounding concerned.
I resist the urge to vomit out my lonely truth, which is, of course, no, I have no friends in Paris. Not one. I keep this to myself because in just two weeks I’ve learned that unlike Americans, French people don’t think it’s adventurous when you tell them you’ve moved to the other side of the world with no job and not a single friend. They think it’s bat-shit crazy.
Luckily, I’m meeting a friend of Mathieu’s for dinner next week, who’s invited seven other women over for me to meet. Even though I don’t know any of them yet, I know that I’m on the road to friendship, so I lie and say breezily, “Yes, I know a few people here.” But I don’t sound convincing, even to myself.
“Well, if you would like to have a drink sometime … do you like the drinks?”
The first part sounds like he’s asking me out, but the second part sounds like he’s asking me if I enjoy drinking in general. Which do I answer?
“I do drink and I would like to have one. Oui. Je bois.” Then I realize that the only part I’ve eked out in French is that I drink. “I mean, oui, je voudrais prendre un bois,” I try again, hoping to sound less like a soppy alcoholic.
“Well, email me!” He mock types on an air keyboard, like the old “call me” motion from the eighties, and laughs. What? Me email him? Where’s the chivalry? This is France!
“Or you can call me. I have an iPhone now thanks to you,” I say flirtatiously. Then, leaving nothing to chance, I say in French, “Ou tu peux m’appeler. J’ai un iPhone maintenant.”
“Oui,” he says smiling. “I have the iPhones too! À bientôt, Madame Brun!” he says as he walks back to his office.
I thank him and walk outside, wondering if I’ll really ever summon the nerve to call him or if this is la fin for Monsieur Richard and I.
Standing on the Avenue de l’Opera, the Opera house and all its Chagall-frescoed glory just down the street, I fire off a text to a small group of friends back home to let them know I’m in possession of a working French phone and that this is the number they can reach me on indefinitely. I almost can’t believe it. Right here on this street corner in Paris, I’m using my newfound WiFi to text America. Across an ocean! I can map myself anywhere I want to go. I could Skype someone right now if I wanted to. It’s an embarrassment of riches, this phone, and I vow to never take telecommunication for granted again.
I think about my mother and how getting that tiny little house with the ugly concrete stoop meant everything to her and to me. And I know it then, just like she did. I feel it deep in my gut. I can do this. I can live in this foreign land that’s an ocean and a country away from everyone I love and it will all be okay.
My French life has begun. Time to get this Parisian show on la rue.