We had just shifted to Paris. A month later, the pipes in our building burst. We wrote to our agency and they sent over a plumber. I knew he was a plumber because he had a big box of equipment, and was wearing a cap. He asked me something, and because I knew he was the plumber, I showed him the bathroom. He went inside and tapped on the tiles. Then, he turned to me and said “Rejkfelkk jtkjtlkj.”
“Ok,” I said.
“Rejkfelkk jtkjtlkj,” he said again.
“Ok,” I said again.
My husband, who was leaning against the wall beside me, was becoming visibly uncomfortable by now. He came closer and whispered into my ears, “Uh, what are you saying OK to?” I looked at him like he had lost his mind, and whispered back, “How do I know?”
At this point the plumber got up, softly shoved us aside, went inside the kitchen and got a dustbin. Then, he got to work. After watching him for another 15 minutes I figured out that he must have been asking for a dustbin, so that when he broke the tiles to look at the leak, he could clean the pieces up.
Four years ago, when I was shifting to Paris, a friend had asked me if I knew French. I could not tell him that I tried taking some classes, but when it got to the point where I had to say, “My name is X”, I made a decision to never ever subject my tongue to such a roller-coaster ride. So I told him no, I do not speak the language. For a moment, he almost looked envious. Then he said, “You are lucky then, because you will get to experience Paris twice.”
Four years down the line, I am beginning to understand what he meant. So far, Paris without French has been a lot of fun. Sometimes, also dangerous to health and well-being. Like when I entered the huge super-market and could not figure out double toned milk. So, for the first six months, we drank what I thought was double toned milk decided solely on the basis on the photograph of a cow on a tetra pack. We found out later that we had been drinking packets of full-cream and could therefore, finally solve the mystery of expanding bodies, and shrinking clothes.
Don’t get me wrong. About ten times in the last four years, I did try to speak basic French. At least, I thought I was speaking French. The French obviously, disagreed with vehemence. Like every time I make an appointment at the doctor’s for my husband, and I have to tell them the ‘nom’ (the surname, which is Agarwal). A G A R R R R R R R … I would say the ‘R’ in so many accents that I would eventually lose track of the only accent I know. If I were Microsoft word, you could say that I would continue to display the ‘R’ in all the hundred available fonts.
Eventually, I would give up and drop the ‘R’ from the surname. I cannot make the ‘R’ come from the base of my throat (that is how they taught me to say when they were teaching me the French alphabets). I have a feeling when I put the letter at the base of my throat; it probably just falls down from there, and lands on the inside of my toes. So, I have hinted to my husband (multiple times now), to go back to Indian court-house and change his surname to Agawal. It is just easier that ways for everybody.
Here in Paris, we meet fellow Indians often (every stranger who is not an Indian somehow invariably speaks fluent French – or so, I strongly believe). In the earlier years, after perfunctory greetings, and plopping multiple servings of finally real Indian food on our plates, conversation usually turns to, “So how do you like Paris, have you picked up the language yet?”
“It is foreign, it is fascinating. No, not yet,” I say.
“How do you manage then?” comes the incredulous follow-up.
“I look at people and gesture wildly.”
It is true. This gesturing thing is magical. I found that out once when my husband cut his finger. I saw red, and I ran downstairs to one of the large stores that sell everything under the sun. “Do you have band-aid?” I asked.
“Quack”, said the person who was standing in the aisles to help me.
“Band-aid” I said. Then as if switching to another language might help her understand better, “B-A-N-D-A-I-D”, I said slowly.
“Quack”, she went.
I sighed, showed her my finger, sliced it with my other hand (like I would show if I were to cut someone’s throat), and then blew on my finger gently with a painful expression on my face. I don’t know if it was a light bulb moment for her, or she just wanted desperately to get rid of me, but she took me directly to a shelf full of band-aid. My husband was saved from a severe cut, and that woman earned my respect, all on the same day. I also realised mime can be an alternate career if they chuck me out of the IT firm.
But things are slowly changing for me. I have a one year old daughter who believes in making strange sounds all day long. Her nounou (nanny) speaks the most beautiful language ever – but it is not English. So far, I have managed to get her to feed and clean the baby, but not much else.
As I watch her grow, I cannot help but wonder if she is getting everything that this place can give her. Perhaps that is why lately I have been craving for a glimpse of the ‘other’ Paris – the one that is introduced to you only when you embrace its language – the one that is uncovered with secret- tips from strangers you meet in supermarkets, and gossip from neighbours who are comfortable sharing them because you can now say more than just ‘Bonjour’, one that is discovered through the jokes that your doctor makes (that sound downright pervert when he translates them into English for mine better understanding), or the bargains you can finally find at the flea markets.
The Paris where ‘chicken-pox’ is the reason for kids to party, and where local friends tell you about the many loopholes that you can exploit to save some tax at the end of the year.
He was right, that friend of mine. There are two kinds of Paris – you experience one from the outside, like a tourist, the way I have been doing for the last four years, and the other you discover when you learn its language, and start living it inside-out. I think I am finally ready to make that move – from being a tourist, to becoming one of Paris’s own.