Saturday, February 16, 2008


I don't usually eavesdrop on other people's conversations.

Wait, did I just actually say that? What a lie. Rewind, start again.

In Paris, I love to eavesdrop on other people's conversations while I'm reading or writing at a café. It's my version of auditing Parisian Life 101.

Midweek, lunchtime on the terrace of a bistro in the 6e arrondissement. An artsy-intellectual older woman chain-smoking unfiltered Gauloises, with a picher of red wine in front of her. (It was almost too perfect a cliché.) Presently her colleague, about 30 years her junior, arrived at the table. Younger woman wearing a jaunty hat, looking intelligent and hip, but not over the top. Here are slices of their conversation I captured, in between bites of my poulet fermier.

OW, smiling and giving bisous: Oh, ma chère, how sublime you look! Here, have a seat. Would you like some wine?
YW: Just a glass, to warm me up.
. . . . .

OW: You know, when it's cold, I like to wear thick socks. They keep my feet warm. It's true, les chaussettes are not très sexy, mais... after all, long nude legs emerging from fuzzy socks: ça a de l'allure!
YW: Or maybe wearing woolen stockings with a garter.
. . . . .

Lunchtime conversation about books. Then,

Waiter clearing their plates asks if lunch was all right: "Ça y était?"

OW (not at all unpleasantly, just matter-of-fact): Non, pas du tout.
Waiter: What was wrong?
OW: Oh, I don't know... It wasn't warm enough; the potatoes were too greasy.
Waiter: You should have told me; I could have heated it up or changed it.
OW: Don't worry, monsieur, I'll come back here anyway, I assure you.

Waiter leaves and returns showing her a plate of tarte tatin:

Waiter: When it's time for dessert, we'll offer both of you this. It's home-made.

Waiter leaves.

OW, pleased: You see? It's important to express yourself in the right way. Honesty is clarity, when presented well.

Conversation shifts to expressing oneself in the editorial world. I didn't record full bios, but OW is a retired editor, YW is a current editor.

YW: Sometimes it's important to have a giant eraser. And hard to know how to deal with a difficult author.
OW: Of course, there is a time in the publishing process when the author has to hate the editor and the editor has to hate the author.
YW: I was working on a manuscript that I abhorred. It was completely awful, a flop. But in the process of editing it and re-working it, I ended up loving the text.
OW: When you have to fix a work that is really lamentable, that's when an editor shows her stripes.
YW: Yes, this one had to be almost completely overhauled. But the directrice de l'éditorial felt that deep down there was something there. And the author had a connection somewhere.

Shared laughter.


Cécile Qd9 said...

the waiter didn't ask "ça y était ?" but "ça allait" or "ça a été ?"

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Merci, Cecile!

It was ca a ete, then. I need all the assistance I can get with Parisian Life 101. The list of things I've mis-heard (or repeated incorrectly) is long and laughable...

Chris Late said...

Reminds me of the book "Le Divorce," when the heroine is finally able to understand what people on the Metro are saying, and discovers that they are having the same kinds of conversations she heard in English in the U.S. said...

Dare I say it? This is why Paris is just so much more interesting.
A cafe in Paris just attracts a more eloquent crowd than Starbucks or Cheesecake Factory.

And it's quiet enough that you can so some serious eavesdropping! I don't French and just love that experience of visiting Paris.

@Chris Late: Metro riders are so much more civil. They may be saying the same thing, but you have to really work to eavesdrop! said...

Hell, looks like I don't English either.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

CL - The conversations were kind of the same as American -- but the sexy socks comment is what made my ears really perk up initially.

I was just glad to hear some inside scoop from the Paris publishing world. Same in the US? I'd love to know!

GLS - In terms of civilized behavior: yes yes.

Actually as Cecile kindly pointed out, the waiter asked 'ca a ete?" which means 'how was it?', not 'ca y etait?' which is a bad translation of what American wait staff says: "Ya done with that?"

My Inner French Girl said...

Dear Polly,

Bonjour! I love listening to other people's conversations, especially in cafes. When I hear a good one, I jot it down quickly and retype the best parts in my writing blog. They're even funnier on paper!

This was a great one!


Jay Livingston said...

Waiter: When it's time for dessert, we'll offer both of you this. It's home-made.

I think "offer" in French means that he's going to give it to them free, as compensation for the greasy potatoes. In America, when a waiter says, "Can I offer you some dessert?" it ends up being on the bill.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

It is fun to eavesdrop.I know I've been eavesdropped upon plenty, too. One time in Boston a woman at a nearby table cracked up over a comment I had just made in an otherwise private conversation!

Thank you so much for mentioning this! The whole notion of gift-giving to me is different in French, because you don't use "donner" but "offrir." To my ears offering a gift sounds much more genteel, more graceful. I learned this a while ago when I admired a French friend's bracelet and she said "C'est Jacques qui me l'a offert."

So yes, the waiter was definitely offering the tarte tatin on the house. "On vous offrira cela: c'est faite maison," is what he said.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Ha, I guess that's the difference between living in the seventh arrondissement and le banlieu. I'm much more likely to overhear conversations about ski vacations or marketing campaigns than literature or the finer points of editing. But I love listening in anyway. And the relative sexiness of footwear is something that could easily crop up in conversation anywhere, and that's what I love about this country. Even if I'm definitely a socks-and-sensible-shoes kind of gal.

lady jicky said...

Sexy socks. Guess she was not working at Vogue?

My Inner French Girl said...

Dear Polly, yeah, as an eavesdropper myself, I know full well how easy it is to do, so I generally keep my voice very, very low in public. ;-)


Dee/reddirtramblings said...

Thanks for the fun conversation and the sexy wool socks with garters.~~Dee

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