Life in translation for my husband Omega Man was to be the catalyst that propelled him into the French language, or so I thought. Our contract included a little clause that said I would do the cooking and, basically, all of the apartment’s up keep; he would do the grocery and household shopping. Not ever having stirred, mixed, sautéed, baked or opened a recipe book, he signed with a triumphant flourish of his pen. I covered my lips with a slight snicker and thought to myself,”Gotcha.”
Four years later: Omega Man against all odds has the Hood adept at sign language and often even speaking English.
I stand in amazement at his recognition up and down the streets of our small center of the world. Of course, I had heard some of his stories and randomly noticed street interchanges of nods and smiles, but I never put it all together until recently. He does the shopping, yes, but more important, he builds relationships. Two days ago, I followed him on his shopping route and then sat with him in our favorite café and listened to him tell me about our Hood.
His shopping path to the bucherie, the boulangerie, and to the fruit and vegetable stand begins with the walk down our little street. On the way he waves to Madame Simone, owner of Les Beaux Mecs, a small next-to-new shop for cool guys. OM has negotiated exchanges with her with much hand signaling and valiant English words that fall hopelessly on Madame’s French ears; however, these exchanges developed into several business transactions. He regularly stops in just to check what she has available as she has a cunning eye for good apparel and enjoys making a deal as much as he. She has turned down some of his offerings, as they did not meet the “cool” standard. Undaunted, he culls his small wardrobe looking for that item that will set out another round of negotiations.
Two doors down from Les Beaux Mecs, a little stool is propped outside a tiny shop signaling that Madame Nguyen is open for pedicures and manicures. OM had a toe problem that was solved with Madame‘s no nonsense pedicure. Being a bit of a prince, the pedicure is now part of his monthly regime. I listen when he calls to make his appointment. “Madam, Oui? Yes, this is OM. Oui, OM, the American. Oui. When? When? Ah, tomorrow? Oui. Yes, Time? Tomorrow. Oui. Ah, Two o’clock? Ah, Four o’clock. No? Oh, Two o’clock. Oui. Merci. Au revoir.” Obviously, Madame has figured out that 2:00 PM is not Quatorze (4:00PM) in OM-speak but really two o’clock in the afternoon, not two o’clock in the morning. Economics is a great driver of language communication.
He turns the corner onto Rue Charonne, girds up his loins and faces his toughest conquest in the Hood: The Bucherie. Behind the counter stand men worthy of the center line of an American professional football team. Arms like Popeye, cocked heads that broker no quarter, squint eyes that signal “Don’t mess with me,” lips that open with a surly, “Wadda ya want?” (Well, I know this sounds like something out of Dashiell Hammett, but to hear OM tell it, it was exactly like that the first two years.) It took OM that long to break into the group. It began dismally. OM did not speak a word of French; the butchers spoke not a word of English. He would offer them his note to show them the French names of the meat he wanted and how many grams. I hoped this act alone would embarrass him into learning French words. Yes, he was embarrassed, but OM has a way of turning things into something funny, and humor translates without words. I now hear him coming up the stairs chuckling, tossing the perfectly cut chicken, the hamburger, down to the exact gram, onto the counter and saying something like, “You would not believe those guys and what they did.” The break through happened over two years ago when he entered and faced the line up behind the counter ready to painfully make his order, grams printed on his hand, note in his pocket. In a chorus, the four men said, “Halloo Mr. OM, How are YOU today?” OM, startled, took a step back, carefully stepped down and out to the street, turned and looked down the street right, turned and looked down the street left. The butchers were silent wondering what this American was doing. OM turned and stepped back up into the shop bravely facing the four lined up behind the counter. He put a bewildered expression on his face, shrugged his shoulders and pointed to himself indicating the hopeful possibility that they were actually addressing him, the oft ignored American. The silence broke with four butchers bursting into laughter, nodding “yes”, and OM laughed with them. Since that time, he is a willing partner in their dramatic pantomimes of who will serve him. With much ducking, dodging and laughter behind the counter when he enters, he points to the lucky one who gets to help that day.
The pâtisserie is a sweet story, no pun intended. OM has a sweet tooth. Without a word of French, he became a familiar patron of the little pastry shop across rue Voltaire. At the end of our first year, OM was pulled aside by the two workers who saw him two to three times a week. In their hands they held a bag of selected pastries that they knew he liked. In broken English they told him that he was a loyal customer and the gift was a token of their appreciation. I have watched OM in action over the years, and I know that those visits were also accompanied by gestures and language attempts that brought laughter. He has a way with people.
Somehow OM gets pants altered, buttons sewn back on jackets, shirts tailored without a word of French. The alternation lady adores him. Her shop is little over a door wide with the sewing machine table set six feet from the door. Behind the door to the right are stacks of bags of customer work done. To the left of the door, a curtain that barely covers the body provides the only privacy for taking off and putting on clothes for alteration. In this tight situation, humor is not difficult; peals of laughter spill out onto the street when OM is present.
A few days after the November 2015 violent attack on the popular dining spot Le Belle Equipe, OM found himself in the neighborhood dry cleaning shop situated diagonally across from Le Belle Equipe. Madame Mahmood, a kind Muslim woman who runs the business broke into tears of worry and fear for her family that there would be blowback. OM listened, held her hand and patted it. No words needed.
Deciding to write about OM and the Hood was triggered by an incident last week. We were in our favorite café, sitting at the bar top with our books. I was having my usual café crème and OM his usual coffee black. We had been reading for about a half hour when set before me was a cappuccino with a heart in the center; OM received another coffee black. We looked at Benoît, our server but now friend from our many afternoons with coffee and a book, and expressed our surprise and wanted him to know we had not ordered it. He smiled, and said he was training a new person and she needed the practice. We laughed and said, “Wow, ok!” Perhaps another hour passed; we are known to spend two to two and a half hours reading long after the coffee has disappeared. Swiftly, another café concoction more beautiful than the cappuccino was placed before me and OM another coffee black. Now I am suspicious. This sort of largess is not in the French character. Conversation yes, complimentary cups of designer coffee, no. Benoît said, “More practice. She is getting good, no?” I laughed and said, “Oui, superior. Mille Mercis”. OM nodded. Benoît seemed very pleased and went back to tending other customers. I turned to OM and said, “What’s going on?”
“Well,” he said, “It goes something like this.”
Two days earlier, OM had gone for a walk and then to the café for his coffee. He sat at the bar and was talking with Benoît who does have some ability with the English language. Immediately below the bar on the server side is a trap door that leads to the wine cave below. Benoît is a high wire artist in his ability to descend with lightening steps, sweep up two to three bottles, set them on his platter and return back up the stairs arm raised, wine bottles gracefully balanced atop the platter. However, a misstep occurred and one bottle slid off the tray, crashing to the floor and splintering open. Wine flowed freely. Benoît was distraught. He chastised himself in French and English, started wiping things up all the time worriedly speaking to himself in low whispers. OM leaned over and asked him if the wine bottle that broke was an expensive bottle. “Oh, yes,” said Benoît. It is my responsibility. OM told me that Benoît was beside himself with how to make up for this loss. OM asked the price range, and Benoît told him. OM reached in his billfold and asked if this would help. Shocked, Benoît, said “Yes, but No, No, ce n’est pas necessaire. No. No, Merci. OM put it on the counter and said, “Merci for all your service, Benoît. Bon Journée.
I became aware that I had a story here, and I began to open my eyes and see. I notice the smiles and nodding heads of recognition given to OM as we walk to and from the metro and bus stop. OM loves the Hood and the Hood seems to take kindly to OM.