How to Say Incredible

An old photo that never made it to the blog: Fifi and Léonard dancing at a soirée given by the Institut de Français after the first week of the first month, when everything was still new, terrifying, and incredible.


On the Metro to the Musée D’Orsay this morning, we sat next to a American woman who took her junior year abroad in Paris and never left. She was perhaps 35 years old. “It’s wonderful,” she said, “but the magic of discovering Paris eventually gives way to the reality of living here.” Now she dreams of moving to Boulder, Colorado.

We had been deep in the magic of discovering Paris earlier, beginning with breakfast with Sabine and Jules Aïm, our hosts at the B&B. Jules, who lost his sight ten years ago, was born and raised in Algeria, which means he was one of the million French Algerians, les pieds noirs, who fled to France during the Algerian war for independence. Jules’s yellow lab guide dog curled up beside Darlene, knowing he would receive lots of scratches behind his ears. Sabine is a watercolorist whose colorful work made our room a happy place. And it turns out Jules is a poet. For the past ten years, he has created an annual volume of his poems for friends and family. He collected his “best of” from those volumes in a book titled “Au Fil du Temps: Poémes 1993-2003.” He gave me a copy of the book and signed it with a signature he couldn’t see.

At the Post Office on a Fathers’ Day mission, we joined a line of 24 people waiting for service. As we inched toward the counter, I asked a young man behind me to help us pronounce the word “incroyable,” which means “incredible” in English. It’s a word Darlene is practicing a lot, but we found out the weakness of my own coaching when the young man said the word with a nicely rolled “r” sound in his throat that I had completely overlooked. We chatted about French and the U.S. and how to roll the r during the 15 minutes it took to reach a postal clerk.

I left breakfast and the post office thinking that, in the right mood, this business of making one’s way in a foreign country offers endless small delights, moments when ordinary life sparkles. For me, the joy of understanding and being understood by Sabine and Jules made breakfast memorable. When they disagreed on the best way for us to reach the Post Office, each insisting on a different route, their comfortable marital friction delighted me, simply because I could follow it. At home, I am not the sort of person who strikes up a conversation in a line at the Post Office. But here in France, we are still innocents abroad, with a free pass to ask a stranger how to pronounce a word and then to admire the amazing ability he has to say that word correctly, with a flawless vibration in his throat to mark the “r.”

The preceding is why the American woman on the Metro made such an impression on me. I am sure that after all these years in France, she never asks a stranger at the Post Office how to pronounce “incroyable.” Her impressions of Paris now tend toward problems such as pollution, overcrowding, and “the attitude of the French.” So it struck me as hugely ironic that all of Darlene’s and my effort these past two months have been aimed at attaining her level of assimilation in French language and culture.

There is no way out of this paradox. You can’t decide to remain an ignorant innocent, because you would miss the joy of each forward step. And you can’t avoid the reality that reaching the goal will end the joy of striving for it.

One strategy that occurs to me is to keep moving back and forth between the two cultures, perhaps living half the year in France and half in the U.S. Perhaps we would then, no matter where, always feel free to ask stupidly brilliant questions at the Post Office.

In all, we had a terrific day in Paris, spent mostly at the Musée D’Orsay. We each decided we would like to return to the Musée often. I have never been in a public space with a better vibe. Sitting under the high rounded ceiling after taking an audio tour of the Neo-Impressionist exhibition, I felt an odd contentment that seemed to express itself simply by rolling the words “Musée D’Orsay” through my mind. “Quoi qui arrive, quoi que je pense, je suis au Musée D’Orsay,” I wrote in my red leather journal while I waited for Darlene to finish her tour. “Whatever happens, whatever thoughts arise, I am at the Musée D’Orsay.” Incroyable!
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