I especially enjoy his stories about cultural and linguistic misunderstandings that really boil down to self-realization in unconventional packaging.
Part of it is that I've had my fair share of misunderstandings with the French. A bigger part is that I will forever link Paris with my own personal growth, having spent a critical month thinking, writing, and learning there in the summer of 2004.
I'm seeing David next month and am thinking about what I'll ask him this time when he signs his book for me. In light of the following essay, I may inquire if he's reconsidering his agreeably contrarian ways.
I suppose the next time I'm in Paris, I should just take the d’accord approach and see where I end up. On second thought ... maybe I won't.
As always, merci beaucoup pour l'essai Rick
The New Yorker: Shouts and Murmurs: In the Waiting Room
by DAVID SEDARIS
The advantages of speaking French.
Issue of 2006-09-18
Six months after moving to Paris, I gave up on French school and decided to take the easy way out. All I ever said was “Could you repeat that?” And for what? I rarely understood things the second time around, and when I did it was usually something banal, the speaker wondering how I felt about toast, or telling me that the store would close in twenty minutes. All that work for something that didn’t really matter, and so I began saying, “D’accord,” which translates to “I am in agreement,” and means, basically, “O.K.” The word was a key to a magic door, and every time I said it I felt the thrill of possibility.
“D’accord,” I told the concierge, and the next thing I knew I was sewing the eye onto a stuffed animal belonging to her granddaughter. “D’accord,” I said to the dentist, and she sent me to a periodontist, who took some X-rays and called me into his conference room for a little talk. “D’accord,” I said, and a week later I returned to his office, where he sliced my gums from top to bottom and scraped great deposits of plaque from the roots of my teeth. If I’d had any idea that this was going to happen, I’d never have said d’accord to my French publisher, who’d scheduled me the following evening for a television appearance. It was a weekly cultural program, and very popular. I followed the pop star Robbie Williams, and, as the producer settled me into my chair, I ran my tongue over my stitches. It was like having a mouthful of spiders—spooky, but it gave me something to talk about on TV, and for that I was grateful.
I said d’accord to a waiter, and received a pig’s nose standing erect on a bed of tender greens. I said it to a woman in a department store and walked away drenched in cologne. Every day was an adventure.
When I got a kidney stone, I took the Métro to a hospital, and said, “D’accord,” to a cheerful red-headed nurse, who led me to a private room and hooked me up to a Demerol drip. That was undoubtedly the best that d’accord got me, and it was followed by the worst. After the stone had passed, I spoke to a doctor, who filled out an appointment card and told me to return the following Monday, when we would do whatever it was I’d just agreed to. “D’accord,” I said, and then I supersized it with “génial,” which means “great.”
On the day of my appointment, I returned to the hospital, where I signed the register and was led by a slightly less cheerful nurse to a large dressing room. “Strip to your underwear,” she told me, and I said, “D’accord.” As the woman turned to leave, she said something else, and, looking back, I really should have asked her to repeat it, to draw a picture, if that’s what it took, because once you take your pants off d’accord isn’t really O.K. anymore.
There were three doors in the dressing room, and after removing my clothes I put my ear against each one, trying to determine which was the safest for someone in my condition. The first was loud, with lots of ringing telephones, so that was out. The second didn’t sound much different, and so I chose the third, and entered a brightly painted waiting room furnished with plastic chairs and a glass-topped table stacked high with magazines. A potted plant stood in the corner, and beside it was a second door, which was open and led into a hallway.
I took a seat and had been there for a minute or so when a couple came in and filled two of the unoccupied chairs. The first thing I noticed was that they were fully dressed, and nicely, too—no sneakers or sweatsuits for them. The woman wore a nubby gray skirt that fell to her knees and matched the fabric of her husband’s sports coat. Their black hair, which was obviously dyed, formed another match, but looked better on her than it did on him—less vain, I supposed.
“Bonjour,” I said, and it occurred to me that possibly the nurse had mentioned something about a robe, perhaps the one that had been hanging in the dressing room. I wanted more than anything to go back and get it, but, if I did, the couple would see my mistake. They’d think I was stupid, so to prove them wrong I decided to remain where I was and pretend that everything was normal. La la la.
It’s funny the things that run through your mind when you’re sitting in your underpants in front of a pair of strangers. Suicide comes up, but, just as you embrace it as a viable option, you remember that you don’t have the proper tools: no belt to wrap around your neck, no pen to drive through your nose or ear and up into your brain. I thought briefly of swallowing my watch, but there was no guarantee I’d choke on it. It’s embarrassing, but, given the way I normally eat, it would probably go down fairly easily, strap and all. A clock might be a challenge, but a Timex the size of a fifty-cent piece, no problem.
The man with the dyed black hair pulled a pair of glasses from his jacket pocket, and as he unfolded them I recalled a summer evening in my parents’ back yard. This was thirty-five years ago, a dinner for my sister Gretchen’s tenth birthday. My father grilled steaks. My mother set the picnic table with insect-repelling candles, and just as we started to eat she caught me chewing a hunk of beef the size of a coin purse. Gorging always set her off, but on this occasion it bothered her more than usual.
“I hope you choke to death,” she said.
I was twelve years old, and paused, thinking, Did I hear her correctly?
“That’s right, piggy, suffocate.”
In that moment, I hoped that I would choke to death. The knot of beef would lodge itself in my throat, and for the rest of her life my mother would feel haunted and responsible. Every time she passed a steak house, or browsed the meat counter of a grocery store, she would think of me and reflect upon what she had said—the words “hope” and “death” in the same sentence. But, of course, I hadn’t choked. Instead, I had lived and grown to adulthood, so that I could sit in this waiting room dressed in nothing but my underpants. La la la.
It was around this time that two more people entered. The woman looked to be in her mid-fifties, and accompanied an elderly man who was, if anything, overdressed: a suit, a sweater, a scarf, and an overcoat, which he removed with great difficulty, every button a challenge. Give it to me, I thought. Over here. But he was deaf to my telepathy, and handed his coat to the woman, who folded it over the back of her chair. Our eyes met for a moment—hers widening as they moved from my face to my chest—and then she picked a magazine off the table and handed it to the elderly man, who I now took to be her father. She then selected a magazine of her own, and as she turned the pages I allowed myself to relax a little. She was just a woman reading a copy of Paris Match, and I was just the person sitting across from her. True, I had no clothes on, but maybe she wouldn’t dwell on that, maybe none of these people would. The old man, the couple with their matching hair: “How was the hospital?” their friends might ask, and they’d answer, “Fine,” or “Oh, you know, the same.”
“Did you see anything fucked up?”
“No, not that I can think of.”
It sometimes helps to remind myself that not everyone is like me. Not everyone writes things down in a notebook, and then transcribes them into a diary. Fewer still will take that diary, clean it up a bit, and read it in front of an audience: “March 14th. Paris. Went with Dad to the hospital, where we sat across from a man in his underpants. They were briefs, not boxers, a little on the gray side, the elastic slack from too many washings. I later said to Father, ‘Other people have to use those chairs, too, you know,’ and he agreed that it was unsanitary.
“Odd little guy, creepy. Hair on his shoulders. Big idiot smile plastered on his face, just sitting there, mumbling to himself.”
How conceited I am to think I might be remembered, especially in a busy hospital where human misery is a matter of course. If any of these people did keep a diary, their day’s entry would likely have to do with a diagnosis, some piece of news either inconvenient or life-altering: the liver’s not a match, the cancer has spread to the spinal column. Compared with that, a man in his underpants is no more remarkable than a dust-covered plant, or the magazine- subscription card lying on the floor beside the table. Then, too, good news or bad, these people would eventually leave the hospital and return to the streets, where any number of things might wipe me from their memory.
Perhaps on their way home they’ll see a dog with a wooden leg, which I saw myself one afternoon. It was a German shepherd, and his prosthesis looked as though it had been made from a billy club. The network of straps holding the leg in place was a real eyeopener, but stranger still was the noise it made against the floor of the subway car, a dull thud that managed to sound both plaintive and forceful at the same time. Then there was the dog’s owner, who looked at his pet and then at me, with an expression reading, “That’s O.K. I took care of it.”
Or maybe they’ll run into something comparatively small yet no less astonishing. I was walking to the bus stop one morning and came upon a well-dressed woman lying on the sidewalk in front of an office-supply store. A small crowd had formed, and just as I joined it a fire truck pulled up. In America, if someone dropped to the ground, you’d call an ambulance, but in France it’s the firemen who do most of the rescuing. There were four of them, and, after checking to see that the woman was O.K., one of them returned to the truck and opened the door. I thought he was looking for an aluminum blanket, the type they use for people in shock, but instead he pulled out a goblet. Anywhere else it would have been a cup, made of paper or plastic, but this was glass, and had a stem. I guess they carry it around in the front seat, next to the axes or whatever.
The fireman filled the goblet with bottled water, and then he handed it to the woman, who was sitting up now and running her hand over her hair, the way one might when waking from a nap. It was the lead story in my diary that night, but, no matter how hard I fiddled with it, I felt something was missing. Had I mentioned that it was autumn? Did the leaves on the sidewalk contribute to my sense of utter delight, or was it just the goblet, and the dignity it bespoke: “Yes, you may be on the ground; yes, this drink may be your last—but let’s do it right, shall we?”
Everyone has his own standards, but, in my opinion, a sight like that is at least fifty times better than what I was providing. A goblet will keep you going for years, while a man in his underpants is good for maybe two days, a week at the most. Unless, of course, you are the man in his underpants, in which case it will probably stay with you for the rest of your life—not on the tip of your mind, not handy like a phone number, but still within easy reach, like a mouthful of steak, or a dog with a wooden leg. How often you’ll think of the cold plastic chair, and of the nurse’s face as she passes the room and discovers you with your hands between your knees. Such surprise, such amusement as she proposes some new adventure, then stands there, waiting for your “d’accord.”