Children, compasses and changing rooms


I can’t help but look at French children as some kind of preternaturally gifted beings. I’ll be standing somewhere, trying to make myself understood in broken fragments of speech, and a mother will walk by with a little blond-haired, impeccably dressed girl. This small person will open her mouth and in an Elmo-like squeak, out will pour the most perfectly formed sentences.

It always makes me jump and peer closer to figure out that yes, this child is three. But like some sort of unwizened Yodas, children here seem to almost instinctively know all the grammar and vocabulary I’m working so hard to absorb.

I do get to talk to many people here, though, since I get asked for directions three or four times a day. It’s like this wherever in the world I go. I must look approachable or helpful, or in some way knowledgeable. But the joke’s on them! I don’t think it would actually be possible to have a worse sense of direction. In the words of my mom, it’s best if I figure out the way I think I should be going, and then turn around and walk the other way.

This trip has been a little bit different. Before I left, my friend Trish loaned me a little guidebook with a compass embedded in the spine. I used that thing constantly, pulling it out every few steps just to make sure that what I thought was north was indeed still north. When you’re me, it changes a lot.

The compass stopped working yesterday (I’m sorry, Trish! I swear I didn’t do anything to it. Maybe it just got tired.) I immediately got totally lost, since north was always to the left and with no internal guides, I didn’t notice this until I was way off course.

I found a sporting goods store today and bought a new one. I’m considering having it surgically implanted into my arm, it makes such a huge difference in how long it takes me to get places. Right after I walked out of the store, I used it to direct a nice couple that spoke neither French nor English to the Eiffel Tower, with the help of their guidebook and a lot of pointing.

Finally, I was inspired to check out the French version of H & M today after my fashion education on the weekend. And yes, that’s like seeing an exhibition on the finest chef in the world and then stopping at McDonald’s, but nonetheless.

I found a classic black dress and went into the change room, imaging how chic and Parisian I’d look wandering along the streets in it. It was a little tight, but I managed to wiggle into it. Once I’d decided it was more Value Village than Valentino, I tried to pull it off. It was stuck. Really, really stuck.

I pulled and pushed, twisted and turned, and generally contorted myself in every way possible. And then stopped and considered how I’d send for help. I remembered the lady just outside the change rooms hadn’t seemed to speak English when I’d gone in. There’s nothing like leaning against the cool, thin white plastic of a changing room wall, a wrinkled dress crumpled about your waist, trying to figure out how to say “This dress is stuck. Will you please come pull it off me?” in French.

It briefly occurred to me that I could have asked the nearest three-year-old before I managed to yank the thing free with a heroic heave. I then high-tailed it directly home, deciding French fashion could wait for another day.

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2 responses to “Children, compasses and changing rooms

  1. Who’da thunk one could so seamlessly blend three-year olds’ vocabulary and ill-fitting dresses…

    Signed,

    Your biggest plaid-based fan

  2. Read this last week and just howled with laughter… I felt the same way about British children, who were polite and erudite and more than a little scary in an Omen kind of way. Also, just wanted to let you know the cute guy and the boxer puppy Presley won American’s Greatest Dog, despite the Maltese Andrew’s brilliant performance in sitting perfectly still while being charged by an elephant….

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