It was a dream come true: two weeks in London and Paris over Christmas break. When my parents surprised my sisters and me with that news in our sophomore year of high school, to say we were excited would have been a drastic understatement. Apart from one trip to Vancouver in sixth grade, we'd never been out of the country before. London and Paris were supposed to be two of the greatest cities in the world. For months, our family conversations consisted of almost nothing else but packing, passport arrangements, and guidebooks.
I'd been taking French classes in school since seventh grade, and by the time I was in tenth, I had a fair bit of the language under my belt. Languages, English classes, and anything to do with words had always come very naturally to me, and in French class I was always right there at the top of the class. I'd even won a small award in a French test contest in the eighth grade. I was sure that, once I got there, all the Parisians would be wowed by the impressive French pouring out of the mouth of a fifteen-year-old American. It was definitely possible that, by the time I returned, I'd be half-French entirely.
We were sent off on a transatlantic plane in a flurry of goodbyes from friends and family who were all either excited on our behalf-or jealous. We were grumpy for most of the flight due to lack of sleep, but our own excitement kicked in as soon as the plane touched down on foreign soil at Heathrow Airport in London. The novelty of being in a brand-new country never seemed to wear off. Just as we thought we were getting used to something--right-side steering wheels or the British flag waving over buildings--we'd get excited all over again.
But I still had my sights set on Paris.
It was nine days of sightseeing and sore feet in London before we boarded the Channel Tunnel, the underground train connecting England to France. I don't remember anything about the trip because of how deeply I slept on the two-hour ride. I only remember waking up as we came out of the darkness and slid to a stop into a train station in Paris. Immediately I was struck by just how many people there were, milling about in groups, pulling luggage or squinting at maps. Quickly following that observation was the fact that absolutely none of these people seemed to speak the same language: English, French, German, Italian, and even Russian were hurled against my ears without leaving me any time to breathe or get my bearings. My head spun.
After evading no less than three beggars, and listening to my mother speak in painfully Americanized French to a confused cab driver, we managed to convey to him that we had reservations at a particular hotel, and we'd like him to take us there. The city didn't flash past us on the taxi ride so much as crawled--traffic was nearly at a standstill. But still, this was Paris. Everyone who was anyone dreamed of coming here! And I still hadn't had one single opportunity to show off my impressive French-speaking skills.
That moment came more quickly than I anticipated. We had just arrived at our hotel--my mother still trying to speak to a now-disgruntled-looking cabbie--when we all realized that it had been many hours since we'd last eaten. My spendthrift of a father decided that we would walk around to try and find a bakery, where we could pick up some sandwiches and pastries instead of spending ourselves dry at a Parisian restaurant. To a bunch of exhausted and cold Americans in a foreign country, this actually made sense, so it was back on with the coats and hats and scarves. We cursed the French cold as we tottered back out onto the sidewalk without a clue what we were looking for.
My sisters were busy marveling over all of the American music blaring out of the shops we passed when we finally stumbled across a boulangerie tucked back from the street, large enough that we could smell the bread from half a block away.
"Rachel," my mother said, pulling me to the side as we walked in, savoring any place that was warmer than outside. "Why don't you order for us? We'll all tell you what we want."
Well, it just so happened that the skill I prized most highly, next to my French-speaking, was my ability to memorize most things without effort. How perfect was this? It was, I was quite certain, the crowning achievement of my entire life. It would get no better than speaking in French to a native Parisian.
The dinner order was relatively simple: five ham and cheese sandwiches on French bread, three hunks of pain au chocolat, and one tarte aux fraises for my strawberry-loving sister. I'd been saying all these words since I'd started speaking the language. Easy as pie. Pardon me--easy as tarte.
The bald man over the counter--dressed rather incongruously in a flour-covered white apron--watched me somewhat suspiciously as I relayed the food order to him in what was, if not perfect French, at least passable and understandable French. When I was finished, he tapped a few buttons on the register in front of him.
And then some words came out of his mouth at such a breakneck speed I nearly got whiplash. "Um, what?" I stammered, already feeling my face going red.
I could tell he was trying not to look annoyed, lest he lose a sale. "Ici ou au dehors?" he repeated, thankfully more slowly, pointing one finger out the door behind me, where my family was clustered watching me.
Okay. Fifty-fifty chance. We wanted our food to go because it was cheaper if you carried it out, but would I be able to tell him that? Helplessly hooking a thumb over my shoulder, I picked one of the phrases, butchering it horribly.
Two French men who had been standing behind me in line snickered at that, and one of them leaned around me, speaking in rapid French to the man at the till. If my face had been red before, I knew it was positively scarlet now. I was barely able to hand the cashier the euros my mom had given me, much less wait around for him to actually hand me the food. I could still hear smug French laughter as I hightailed it back to my parents.
"How'd it go?" my mom asked cheerfully.
"Let's get out of here," I muttered quickly, ignoring the hand she held out for the bag of sandwiches, and not stopping until I was well out of sight of the bakery. I was sure my French-speaking career was at an end. I'd be lucky if I ever spoke again. All my dreams of impressing Paris had withered away in the golden, floury smell of the boulangerie.
And after all that, they forgot the tarte aux fraises.