I've finally done it. I've cracked Madame Tabac.
It all began a year ago when I moved into my new apartment. I needed to buy more minutes of credit for my pay-as-you-go cell phone. So I crossed the street to the Bar-Tabac Jean B to make the purchase.
Plowing through the smoke-filled café, I passed the men lined up at the zinc with their cafés serrés or their morning petit coup de rouge. I headed to the corner of the Tabac, where Loto tickets, cigarettes, stamps, and Hollywood chewing gum are sold and cell phone transactions take place. And there was Madame Tabac.
Haggard and stone-faced, clad in a sagging grey cardigan, Madame shuffled to the cash register in her pantoufles.
"Bonjour madame, I need to buy minutes for my cell phone," I chirped in well-rehearsed French.
Her bulging eyelids closed into suspicious little slits. "On ne vend pas de minutes"-- we don't sell minutes.
"To make my cell phone work," I continued, smiling.
"Je ne comprends rien de ce que vous dites, madame," she growled, pushing back wisps of her greasy hair in frustration.
"Non non, excusez-moi madame," I pleaded, "I need to buy credit for my cell phone." I nodded earnestly.
"Du credit? On ne fait pas ça ici! " her snarling contempt was unrestrained.
OK. I knew this Tabac store was where I could pay money to give me more time on my cell phone. I paused, slowed my thoughts. The day's first lesson in humility -- admit language failure. Deconstruct my needs into tidy little word packets.
There was a small line of nicotine addicts forming behind me. Madame was getting impatient. I began anew. "Voici mon problème, madame. I have a cell phone. It is not a portable a abonnement. I have to pay money -- to be able to talk on the phone. I can pay money at a Tabac somehow so that I can buy a piece of paper that permits me to telephone on my cell phone. I do not know the word for it. Do you have what I might need?" How to be reduced to a third grader in two seconds flat.
"Oh, vous voulez un recharge Mobicarte, imbécile," (actually, she did call me madame, but I know she meant imbecile. But at that point I was willing to take whatever insults came my way.) "Combien d'euros?"
We finished the transaction and I scurried out, tail between my legs. As I headed back across the street, it dawned on me that this grizzly Jabba the Hutt was going to be a permanent fixture in my new life. First reaction -- dread. How could I face this grouch every time I needed a bus ticket or a Mobicarte recharge (the all-important phrase now permanently sealed in my lexicon). Next thought -- the Madame Project. I'll have to crack her, win her over to make her smile at me, if not be nice.
This has been no easy task.
A few days later, I returned for another Mobicarte. This time I rehearsed it to perfection.
"Bonjour, Madame," I sang. "Je voudrais un recharge Mobicarte, s'il vous plait."
"Déjà?" she snarled.
"Euh.. oui," I said with a sly grin. "I have been très bavarde" -- a real chatterbox.
"Il faut savoir se limiter, quand même, " she muttered, shaking her head. -- one should control oneself. But I did notice a supressed twitch in the corner of her mouth that, with months of therapy, could possibly have been turned into a smile.
Since then, with sporadic interactions, she has tolerated my presence in her little corner shop. I have wooed her with perfect change -- lots of it. I have commiserated on the blustery weather. I have agreed with her about idiotic customers. When I could extract conversation from her, it was usually deadpan and mostly monosyllabic.
Until this week.
I arrived in the usual grey morning haze of the Jean B, and perched in the corner was Madame Tabac, her straggly grey bun transformed into a brunette chin-length bob.
"Vous vous êtes changée de coiffure, Madame!" I remarked, not knowing the response it would elicit.
Suddenly she smiled, her broad yellow teeth sporting wide gaps.
"I am a grandmother now," she offered proudly. "Il faut changer d'allure."
"Cela vous va très bien," I complimented. "Et félicitations pour le petit enfant."
With customary merci-au-revoir-bonne journée, I left, dazed that I had finally gotten across the treacherous communication divide. But that was not all.
This morning I stopped in and there was Madame, new coif AND a choker of pearls and a clean navy-blue cardigan. She was looking positively radiant (for Madame).
After the usual preliminaries I ventured, "And how is the petit enfant?"
Madame now began to gush. "Ohhhh, qu'est-ce qu'il est mignon et adorable. Un vrai petit chéri. Qu'essss-ce qu'il est beau!"
I decided to push my luck. "I'd love to see a photo some day."
My new best friend, Madame said, "Oh, you'll see him soon enough here at the Jean B. He's only 10 days old so he's not here yet. Mais il grandit! He's growing. Qu'est-ce que ça pousse vite, les bébés. Yes, you'll have to come back to see him."
Me and Madame. Joined at the hip.
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