France on Fridays: La Plus Longue Journée

The Longest Day • Wednesday, May 31/Thursday, June 1

A week before the trip, I rented The Longest Day in preparation for our visit to the beaches of Normandy. A 1962 war movie, it starred a who-was-who cast including Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowall, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, John Wayne, and Fabian.

It was a good, albeit Hollywood-interpreted, synopsis of the D-Day battles, and served as good Cliff Notes as DeLinda and I walked along Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach. It was even more fitting as the title of the first day of our journey…the longest day.

• • •

DeLinda and I meet, as we often do these days, at the airport: Newark, in the International Flight Terminal. She left Austin at six, I New Haven at nine, and here we are at noon meeting up for the first time in over a year. With 150 pounds of luggage combined — no doubt 125 of it in my suitcase “Big Red” — we are prepared for just about anything including popped buttons, blisters, clothing stains, lint, snow, torrential downpours…the trip of a lifetime!

A five-hour pause before our flight gives us a chance to catch up, talk about the days ahead, compare notes, and share the library of information we carry with us for the trip. Then it’s off through security and one more pause before we board the plane sometime around 6:00 p.m.

The eight-hour flight is well-paced — dinner, movie, lights dimmed, breakfast — so by the time we land in Paris at 8:30 a.m., it is almost easy to forget that it is 2:30 in the morning for us, some 21 hours since our day began.

Landing in Paris, or any foreign country I imagine, is a bit of a shock. Lulled into a false sense of familiar on the plane, you step into the airport and at once are immersed in all things French. The language, the people, the sights and sounds — all foreign, all exciting! I am reminded of the 15 minutes we spent in Mexico two years before, when the foreignness overwhelmed us to the point that we spent more time crossing back into the country than we had in Mexico itself. Only this time, there’s no turning back.

Those first moments in France are vague in my mind. From the plane, we crowd onto a shuttle bus, our eyes adjusting to the morning sun. On board are tourists and locals — a short Frenchman standing near me both looks and smells deliciously European. An intercom voice makes arrival and departure announcements in the terminal and sounds like the woman on my Learn French in Your Car CD — though there will be no English translation to follow.

Our escort, Jamie, a hip 20-something in a wrinkled, black pinstripe suit we swear he’s been wearing since last night, greets us as we exit a maze of security, customs and baggage. In broken French and English we chat over French pop music on a station we will delightfully come to know as “NRJ,” as he casually navigates us through an hour of frenetic Paris traffic.

The ride is a blur…cars criss-crossing each other like frenzied women at a shoe sale, the crowded rows of buildings, the famous places…all rushing by the window. I barely recall, now, the trip or those very first glimpses of the city.

With no neon-signed introduction, our hotel, the Hôtel Rochambeau, sits discretely on Rue de la Boétie, just around the corner from Saint-Augustin Church. Located in the ninth arrondissement of Paris, a business district dotted with shops and cafés, it serves as the perfect respite for our five days in Paris.

The glass-walled entrance opens to a small lobby, where the friendly hotel staff greets us. To the right is the dining room where we will eat our breakfast for the next four days. Around the corner is a small elevator — just large enough for DeLinda, me, “Big Red,” and the rest of our belongings — and a red-carpeted staircase with stained-glass windows curving around to the upper floors.

Having checked in, our first task is coffee, and lots of it! It is now 12:00 Paris time, 6:00 a.m. our time, and some 24 hours since our journey began. Our plan is to avoid jet lag, and missed moments, by staying awake and enjoying the day as if it is a new one. Sleep can come later. Right now? We see Paris!

“Bonjour, Madame,” we say with a smile to the woman at the café across the street. There is a counter with stools, and several small tables lined up along the tiled floor.

“Bonjour!” she smiles back.

As we settle into this first day, these first moments in France, there is a marked transition in our conversations. At first, we only speak English. But gradually, as we acclimate, they become more hybrid: “Bon Matin! Where are we going today?” or “Je voudrais to sit down for a little while.”

Both DeLinda and I have studied French. My strength is in vocabulary words — fromage, pamplemousse, merde — and I am excited to use them in something more authentic than a classroom. But speaking French for me is almost embarrassing, like singing in public, and it takes a while to feel comfortable. I manage, though, with a good measure of Bonjour, Merci, Pardon, and Mon Dieu!

DeLinda, on the other hand, can actually put vocabulary words together in a comprehendible sentence, complete with verb conjugations and an accent! We partner well in our efforts; I the linguistic sous chef to her communication mastery. It is this team effort—relying on each other’s strengths — that get us through conversations and navigations on our two-week trek.

There are, for sure, moments of confusion and humor. In Paris, we struggle for the correct and polite way to ask for our check, and make do with “how much is this?” Desperate for roadside car repair, we resort to sign language, nods and pointing. In Honfleur, in need of white-out for a botched postcard, I politely ask the woman in the stationery store, “avez vous le blanc dehors,” (rough translation: do you have white outside), while I mimic writing, mistake, cross out, painting. “Ah! Correcto!” she finally smiles.

They always seem to know what we are trying to say. Looking back, though, I will confess, I didn’t understand a word they said! I could speak French at them, but their responses were usually met with my furrowed-brow look of utter confusion followed by a glance of “help!” to DeLinda, who would translate so I could nod politely.

We’d read that the best way to make your way about France was to smile and to be polite.

“Deux café creme, s’il vous plait,” we say to the woman in the café.

“Oui, deux café creme,” she smiles her response.

It seems to be working.


At the Tabac on the corner, we eye the French cigarettes. And lighters—they’d taken our “terrorist paraphernalia” at the airport in Newark.

“Bonjour, madame,” I say to the stalwart woman behind the counter.


Good, so far.

“Avez vous…”

I search my brain for the French word for “lighter,” as if they would have taught us that in school. I search the counter for something I could point at. And then I see the display…

“Avez vous…une Bic?” I pronounce it “beek” so it sounds French.

“Ah, ‘briquet,’ oui,” she responds with an unexpected smile.

Several days into our adventure, we come to understand that this emphasis on the correct word, the word en Français, is their way of trying to teach us the language. Eventually, we learn to repeat the words back to them as practice. For now…

“Oui, merci,” I say, very politely.

On our trip, we also come to understand the misunderstanding many have about the French. We’d heard they could be rude, that they were proud of their language to the point of arrogance. What we discover is quite different.

We find the French to be incredibly kind and gracious with us. Our efforts to make an effort, to speak with confidence—even if we don’t know the exact word or verb conjugation — are welcomed with open arms and generous smiles. Humor at times, yes, like the bartender who laughs when his “Avez-vous pris une décision encore?” is met with my polite furrowed-brow.

“Have you made a decision yet,” DeLinda explains, and we all have a kind laugh at my expense.

The French are actually incredibly polite and well-mannered, in that way one might be with an older relative. Remember? Sit up straight. Put your hands in your lap. Say “please” and “thank you.” Be on your best behavior.

Sadly, more often than not, it is the Americans we see who come off as rude and arrogant. Rude and arrogant to the point of embarrassing, truth be told.

In our hotel, two mothers and their teenage daughters from Kentucky are in Paris for the weekend.

“Do y’all take American money?”

“Non, madam.”

“Y’all don’t take American money?” she asks, offput and confused. “Well, where can we git French money?”

Five minutes later, she presents the hotel staff with gifts — shiny new Kentucky quarters. No “French money,” but enough forethought to go to the bank and purchase a brand new roll of quarters before they left? It is an uncomfortable exchange. Unfortunately, not the last we overhear on our trip.

“Honey,” yells the husband from across the street.

Two weeks into our trip, we haven’t heard yelling since Newark.

“What?” his wife bellows back to him.

“Yer gonna miss the bus, woman!”

We sink into our seats and look the other way…

“I just ordered a beer!”

“Oh, Jesus.”

…pretending not to understand.

It is a snapshot moment: DeLinda and I, sitting at a table by a window in a street-side café. Small, white porcelain cups filled with dark, rich café crème, smoking French cigarettes, watching France walk by. When I see it now, the photo is black and white and grainy.

With our first successful interactions en Français, we freshen up in the hotel and make our way out into Paris for the first time. Down Boulevard Malesherbes, past La Madeleine, down Rue Royale where Place de la Concorde suddenly opens up before our eyes. We are in Paris! Mon Dieu!

We wander, in a bleary mix of exhaustion and excitement, across the Place de la Concorde, along the Seine, and into Le Jardin des Tuileries. It is raining — the only bad weather we will see in our two weeks — but, it is a light rain, and we wander quietly through the sculptures of Tuileries, finding our way to a little café in front of the carousel that spins nearby.

When people ask, now, what was my favorite meal — they ask favorite meal, favorite site, favorite moment, as if you could pick just one — I think of the lunch DeLinda and I enjoyed on that very first day. Sitting under a burgundy canopy on plastic chairs, sipping French wine in the rain, we enjoyed the simplest of sandwiches: French baguettes, camembert, slices of ham, and a startling Dijon mustard. Ham and cheese sandwiches I will never forget!

On our way back to the hotel, we make our favorite discovery: Le Monoprix, a colorful and fun French department store. Small, on the corner by our hotel, it invites us in with its funky window displays and familiar appeal. It reminds me of Target, only smaller, more friendly and less American. French perfume, pretty outfits, multicolored scarves—everyone wears scarves in France. (I buy five by the end of the trip!)

Tucked in the back is a grocery store, and we select snacks to take back to our hotel room — fresh cheese, nuts, French bread, olive tapenade, cookies, chocolate. We are almost too tired to eat, but we do, as we wearily attempt to record the day’s events in our journals. It is hard to take note that we started our journey some 4,000 miles away more than 33 hours ago!

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
C’est La Vie

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne. Newark Airport, 4:30 p.m. on May 31; Paris, 3:30 p.m. (9 a.m. Newark time) on June 1.

8 thoughts on “France on Fridays: La Plus Longue Journée

Add yours

  1. Wonderful!
    What memories it conjures up — of course (bien sûr!) the first ham and cheese on baguette — the politeness — and Monoprix! I had forgotten about it —
    Laugh out loud: “cars criss-crossing each other like frenzied women at a shoe sale”

    Looking forward to plus d’aventures —

  2. I thought your comparison of feeling self-conscious about speaking French over there to singing in public was most insightful and probably shared by many – what a delightful account of your longest day – sounds like one of many indelible memories from that trip!

  3. I love those first few hours after landing. It’s amazing how we can travel so far in the span of such a short period of time. Everything we know is far behind and all that stands in front of us is an adventure of all things new and undiscovered!

    Kudos to you for knowing another language and being so excited to speak it! :-) I’ve yet to learn a second language and I always make a complete idiot of myself when I’m in a place where I don’t know the language. At the same time, I love how people can communicate when there is a language barrier in place. It gives me hope that we truly do understand one another on some level no matter what.

    I’m loving these posts! :-)

    1. I don’t think I thought much about how connected we are to language until one morning in Paris. We were at a bakery and there was a woman about my age behind the counter. She was the owner. As a female business owner myself, I so wanted to talk to her about what it was like to own a business in Paris. Did she have similar experiences? hopes? dreams? How did it all come about for her. I like to think, in our more simple interaction, that she understood the connection we shared and that we communicated on some level – like you said. But at the same time, throughout the trip, I missed the ability to dive full on into meaningful conversations with the people we met.

  4. This is a continuing frustration, no matter how my French improves. There is a huge gap between being able to have a conversation, and being able to have a meaningful conversation!
    So we do our best, but — aware of the *more* that’s not possible.

    1. Exactly! You hope the warm smile and gentle tone conveys the affection or gratitude, the wide eyes and excited tone shows your curiosity, and the politeness shows your respect. Like CB said, finding ways to understand on some level no matter what.

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