Letter from Paris: Fifty Million French Hens

Dear friends,

In order to write this letter to you I’ve had to set aside my knitting. And it’s a pleasure to do it, not only because I love writing to you, but because it means that I have knitting to set aside.

It’s been a while. I’m back to my needles after the longest lapse in my adult life. Not because I didn’t want to knit, but because one very, very bad day I discovered that I simply could not knit.

Here’s what happened.

On my first morning in Paris, I pulled back the bedroom curtain and braced myself for culture shock. I knew it was coming. The pessimists in my stateside circle of friends assured me that it would. “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” they’d say, doubtfully. “Once you get over the culture shock.”

So I decided to deal with culture shock the way we dealt with chicken pox when I was a kid: get it, and get it over with. On that bright, early morning I stuck my head out the window, opened my arms, and shouted, “Okay, Paris! I’m all yours! Hit me with your best shot!”

“Putain! Taisez-vous!” came a response from across the courtyard. “Shut the f–k up!”

A good start.

Unfortunately, culture shock is not like chicken pox. Culture shock is like chicken pecks. You don’t get one big knock-down blow that sends you to bed, you get a million little pecks every day. You keep on walking, slowly wearing down until you stumble. You dread the next peck. You grow paranoid. You know it will happen. You just don’t know when.

It often begins with the tiniest obstacle. Let’s say you need toothpaste.

Now, you have been using the same American brand of toothpaste since kindergarten. You understand that this toothpaste is not available to you in France. Nevertheless, you need toothpaste.  You realize that you are not quite sure where to buy toothpaste. At the supermarket? At the pharmacy?

You have learned the word for toothpaste (le dentifrice), so you could ask someone. But every time you try to speak French in a shop, the other person goes off script and starts saying things for which you are not prepared, using words you do not know, in an accent that is one long, heavy sigh sparsely interrupted by an occasional half-assed consonant.

The actual French, as it turns out, do not learn French from Duolingo.

Confusion ensues. Even when the other person is kind and patient, you hold up the line and get glared at and drop your wallet and knock over your bag and then there’s more French that you understand even less, and back out on the sidewalk you wish ardently that someone’s belle époque jardinière of geraniums would fall on your head and end the misery.

For “toothpaste” you may substitute every single thing you need or want, every single day. Shoe polish, plant food, a butter dish, a USB cable, toilet paper, internet installation, dinner in a restaurant.

Soon, all you notice are the differences and difficulties. The electrical outlets here are funny-looking and the electrical plugs are too big. The stupid light switches don’t make sense. The water smells stupid. There’s no way to hang a damn shower curtain in your stupid bathroom. The stupid supermarket is arranged according to some stupid arcane code dictated by Napoleon that means the paper towels and the Kleenex (which is of course not Kleenex) are in different departments on different floors. That was interesting the first time, but now you’re just annoyed.

Why aren’t all the paper goods together? Why are French paper towels so damn small? Why are there seven different kinds of white flour in the baking aisle, and why is baking soda sold at the hardware store? While we’re at the hardware store, what is the word for “toilet plunger” and why do they not have them at this hardware store? Oh, this is the wrong kind of hardware store? Of course it is. Because of course of course of course OF COURSE THERE IS MORE THAN ONE KIND OF HARDWARE STORE. Are you crying? Yes, you are crying.

You have a dream, a delicious dream, in which you go to an American Walgreens and buy toothpaste without hours of planning and it takes two minutes and you are not traumatized in the aftermath. This is followed by a nightmare in which you use one square too much of flimsy French toilet paper and your Louis Quatorze plumbing goes on strike and there’s water everywhere and you still don’t know the word for toilet plunger.

These are small crises, to be sure. And for decades, as urged by Elizabeth Zimmermann, I have knit on with confidence and hope through all crises: final exams, my mother’s death, biopsies, cancer, a global pandemic.

Big crises, no problem. But after a barrage of small ones, something in my brain finally snapped. On a gray afternoon, I picked up a perfectly plain sock-in-progress and found that I could not continue. My brain said, “Knit!” and my hands said, “Sorry, wrong number.”

I couldn’t figure out how to hold the needles. I couldn’t remember which hand held the working yarn. Covered in cold sweat, I consulted a YouTube video on continental knitting—my own video. And I still couldn’t do it. I stuffed the sock back into its bag and hid the bag in a cupboard in my workroom, and I went to bed for twenty-four hours.

I have been terrified to admit this to anyone. I mean, knitting isn’t my hobby–it’s my life. It’s my living. And I had moved thousands of miles to do it in a new and more inspiring place, only to find that I couldn’t do it at all.

There was no choice but to keep going. Not with the knitting, which stayed in the cupboard, but with everything else. The rent must be paid, food must be bought, boxes must be unpacked.

Then came a day when I was buying carrots (des carottes) at the produce shop (le primeur) on the corner of my street (au coin de la rue) and realized that I’d understood the cashier when she announced my total. I hadn’t paid especially close attention. I was too tired and foggy. Yet I understood her. A miracle.

And then, another miracle. The cashier (who is perfectly polite, but does not overflow with warmth) handed me my change and said that I was speaking far better these days, and clearly feeling more confident about life in Paris. “You were so shy the first time you came here,” she said in French. “I remember.”

Of course she did. I had drawn back nervously to allow another customer to pass in the narrow aisle and toppled a pile of potatoes; and then apologized by saying in my best French, “Alas, it is me, thank you, sorry, the apples are falling, it is me who have made apples falling, I am desolated, thank you, I was the American, thank you, I am sorry!”

Back in my apartment, there were fewer packing boxes begging for attention. You could see quite large patches of floor. I had found all the ingredients for my dinner, and turned on both the kitchen light and the oven without hurting myself. 

In the event of an emergency, there was a toilet plunger at the ready in the bathroom cupboard.

That night I pulled out the sock, did my best to exhale and empty my brain, and . . . my fingers took over. Knit knit knit knit knit knit knit. As if we’d never been apart.

I wasn’t sure, as I wrote my first letter to you, if there would be a second. But here we are, and there are my socks, and I’m about to cast on for a sweater.

More soon. 



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