Adventureland!,  Off to See the World

Une Serviette and Other Words

Running out of tissue while in a foreign country is exactly my sort of predicament.

I had been walking around the citadel all morning, and now I headed toward the peninsula where the naval memorial stood. I wondered if it would look like the beaches of Normandy, swelling green lumps between craters, beyond the smooth beach.

Like others with severe allergies, I carry tissue with me wherever I go, as if it were an EpiPen or, more accurately, a pacemaker, because it’s something I always, always need. As I sniffled my way down Rue Dauphiné, I searched for a drugstore, or at the very least, a café.

A burgundy awning poked out up ahead, sheltering the rattan chairs that overlooked the small bay. Gauguin had certainly sat in one of those chairs; maybe Monet as well. That was the magic of France. History hung out on street corners shouting stories, and possibility nudged at its elbow, whispering in its ear.

The place was pretty much empty. A woman with two small girls sat near the window, and a nondescript man read the paper, an empty thimble of espresso at his elbow. I signaled the waitress.

“Avez-vous un…uh…un”

I knew this word. I knew this word. I had been speaking French for a solid month, and I knew this word. Dammit.

“Excusez-moi,” I reddened, “j’ai oublié…uh…oh, what is it? Un papier pour les mains…”

A paper for your hands. Stupide Américaine.

The graying, portly gentleman to my left interrupted my performance, which now included pantomiming and earnest looks while the waitress tried (and failed) to guess.

“Excuse me, but what are you trying to ask for?” He spoke with a standard English accent, and he had what I imagined to be a standard English face. Utterly forgettable.

“Oh, you speak English!” I said. I hadn’t spoken or heard anyone speak English in about a week, since the Loire Valley tourists who, oddly enough, hailed from my hometown.

“This is so embarrassing; I forgot the word for ‘napkin.'”

“‘Serviette,” he provided, smiling all the way to his eyes.

Serviette! I knew that word.

I turned back to the waitress and asked for a napkin, just as the gentleman handed me a stack. “Here, take some of mine, I won’t use all these.”

“Thank you,” I said, and held them up to the waitress, who smiled and went back to work.

I turned back to the man. “You know, I knew that word, but for a minute there I totally went blank.”

“Your accent is very good, though. You’re American?” he asked.

“Yes. From Los Angeles. And you’re English.” I said.

“Yes, popped over here on holiday. It’s not very far from where I am. Just a quick ride on the ferry. But it’s quite a trip for you?”

“Thirteen-hour plane ride.” The words felt sticky on my tongue, like I’d eaten a mouthful of Rolos.

“Wow, quite a trip. How long are you staying?”

“Well, I’ve been in the country for almost a month now, and tomorrow I go back to Paris and fly home the next day.”

“And how do you like it here?”

“I love it. I don’t want to leave.” I set down my bag. “You know, it feels so weird to speak English again. I haven’t spoken it much since I’ve been here.”

“How strange that must be! Well, have a seat!” He invited, waving a hand across the table. “Everyone tells me I’m a talker, so you’ve found the right bloke.”

I sat down. We talked, and I didn’t forget any more words.

St Malo Beach


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