One recent Saturday I was wandering through a town. It was cold and rainy and there weren’t a lot of people out. It’s the off season around here so a lot of restaurants were shuttered, but not all of them. After inquiring in a couple, though, I learned that none opened before noon, which was 15 minutes away.
As I stepped out of one place a man who was surveying the menu posted outside asked, “Not open for lunch?”
“Not till noon,” I replied.
“Ah! An American! Where are you from?”
“L.A.,” I grumbled.
“Really? So am I! Well…Rancho Cucamonga.”
In Somewhere in Time there’s a scene in which Christopher Reeve is jarred out of his 19th-century reverie by the sight of a Lincoln penny. The anachronism had broken the spell. That’s how I felt meeting this man.
I had no reason to suspect that he was anything but a nice fellow, an upstanding citizen who pays his taxes and drives under the speed limit and washes his hands after he uses the toilet, but I wanted no part of him.
A horrible fear overcame me in a flash that this man was going to ask if I wanted to have lunch with him. His eyes were big and a nervous smile had come over his face. I wanted out.
“Ah. Small world. Well, have fun!”
We clearly wanted different things from our day in Carcassonne, that man and I. At this very moment he could be telling his own friends the story of the snotty American he met in France. Expectations and perceptions are as different as fingerprints.
Later in the afternoon I was sitting in a brasserie having a beer. The train station was across the street and I had a half hour to kill. The door opened and I heard an American voice.
(Cultural note: The young lady who was behind the bar washing glasses greeted the man as he entered but he went directly to his question, in English. That was a red flag. Everybody says bonjour here. Shop clerks, waiters, other patrons in a restaurant, the garbage man, teenagers slouching across the steps of the cathedral. Everybody.)
“Do you serve food?”
Without looking up I knew who it was and tried, as delicately as I could, to shrink into my corner banquette.
“Yes but not now.”
I wanted to run over and give her a hug. She answered the question posed to her accurately, but she conveyed so much more information than that, and with such subtle richness, that I was in awe.
The American slunk out, probably already planning the email he’d send home that evening telling about how rude the French are.
PS: Rancho Cucamonga is not L.A.