We call it a housewarming. In France, it’s hanging the hook for the cooking pot. Or, “pendre la crémaillère.”
That’s where I began my French immersion in earnest.
It was three weeks after my arrival in Paris. Three weeks after I’d begun my French classes at Alliance Française. A year-and-a-half after I’d left my job as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. And five years after my 50th birthday. I was there, as I’d said to instructors at Alliance Française, to “élargir mes horizons culturels,” or expand my cultural horizons. I was there for more than that, without realizing it, but at least it was a good response for people asking what a middle-aged New Yorker was doing living by himself in Paris.
That cool April Sunday I was participating in the hanging of a hook at a little French love nest. My friend Daniel had bought what he called his “nid d’amour” for himself and his boyfriend Sasha on quiet street in a formerly industrial area near the outdoor train lines in the 13th arrondissement, a five-minute walk from the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand.
Their new apartment was an old car-repair shop, with a lovely non-automotive courtyard.
It was now a narrow duplex with a bedroom in the basement, an open “cuisine américaine” and a quasi-industrial décor of gray painted cement floors, white walls, and unyielding shiny furniture that offered as little comfort as anything in Jacques Tati’s “Playtime.” It didn’t matter about the furniture – almost everyone stood anyway.
Here, among the whispered babble of a language I had just begun to learn, were a swirl of people amid clouds of smoke and clinks of wineglasses who would at some point steer me through the byways of their cultural references, mode de vie and cuisine.
At least I wasn’t alone. I’d asked a new acquaintance, Jim, to accompany me.
Jim, an American, had lived in France for 10 years, and spoke perfect French. He worked for a company that found lodging for U.S. exchange students for their few months of study in France. And he, like many transplants, had acquired a sort-of Frenchness – let’s call it the scarf effect, since he knew how to sport “une écharpe” in that just-so “I don’t even think about how I look but I’m chic anyway” manner – that couldn’t quite mask an inherent Midwestern gawkiness. Jim spoke French without a discernible American accent but to this newcomer he seemed as American as an all-you-can-eat buffet.
And like a lot of Americans in Paris who briefly take an arrival from the New World under their wing, Jim loved to lecture the novice on all points of French life. As we walked to Daniel’s from the bus stop where I’d met Jim, he held forth on the neighborhood (up-and-coming), the difference between a boulangerie and a patisserie (bread and pastries vs. gâteaux) and Sunday store hours (most are closed, as I’d already found out).
I listened and forgot. (It’s better to learn these things on one’s own and pass them along to other uncomprehending newcomers at some future date).
But what Jim did do, upon our arrival at Daniel’s apartment, helped me in the best way possible: he avoided me. As soon as we entered and were introduced to the gathering I was on my own.
And since I couldn’t rely on an interpreter to help me sort out what the Parisians crowding Daniel’s apartment were saying to each other, or to me, I had to make do with my meager French and hope for their understanding.
At that point, I’d barely made it to “Je m’appelle Bob” or, as I’d begun to introduce myself in French, “Robert,” but I screwed my courage to the sticking place and tried not to fail, more amiable Falstaff than murderous Macbeth, perhaps, but eager in any event to connect.
And I did.