In 2012 my wife, Anita, and I started planning our first-ever trip to Paris, a full four weeks in an apartment in the Montmartre district. I had never spoken French and Anita had long forgotten the two years she had in high school, so we decided to take the French for Travelers course at our local Alliance Française, followed by private lessons with our teacher in that class. There we learned two things (well, we learned many things, but two that bear directly on this story): first, like other languages, French has a “polite” form of addressing the other person in your conversation as well as an “intimate” form; and second, that in only the short time we would be there, we would never have a chance to progress to the level of friendship that would allow use of the intimate form. So we only learned how to be polite, not how to be intimate. When that level of friendship is reached, one of the two will say something like “we should tutoyer“, which is the French verb for using that intimate form of address. Okay, so much for the grammar lesson background needed to understand this most unexpected event.
One day we were having coffee at our favorite bistro next door to our apartment, and a very nice French lady about our age came to our table and in reasonably good English complimented Anita on her hat. We thanked her kindly and she returned to her table. A little later, as she was leaving, she repeated the compliment and we asked her to join us. She did, and an hour-long conversation followed; fortunately, she had lived in the States for a year several years earlier and still had enough command of English to make such a conversation possible.
As she began to take her leave, she asked if we’d like to go shopping with her the way SHE shops, rather than the “tourist” shopping we’d already done. How can you turn down an offer like that? So we met again a couple of days later, took the bus to the neighborhood of the Bon Marché (see Emile Zola’s classic Au Bonheur des Dames for a fictionalized account of this world-changing breakthrough in retail sales). From there we walked all day long, including a stop for coffee at the famous Les Deux Magots.
In the midst of this shop-a-thon, I noticed this:
Did I expect that when I was planning this trip? Of course not. When we parted for the day, she invited us to her apartment for tea a few days later. And it was there that it happened. She suggested we speak French for a while, because obviously we wanted to try out our new French skills. After a few minutes, in a very quiet voice, she said, “We are friends; we should tutoyer.” I was stunned. She had invited us into her life, in a city that bears an ill-deserved reputation for its bad attitude to Americans, and I didn’t even have the vocabulary to respond. We managed to get through it without hurting anyone’s feelings, and when we left Paris a few days later, we brought back one of those intangible souvenirs that reminded us to always be on the lookout for a new friend.