We have been here about six weeks and a couple weeks ago I experienced my first day alone out in the wilds of Paris. M was attending an all-day art class so I needed to feed and entertain myself. That’s a big ask, but I endeavored.
Since I am now officially “on sabbatical,” I wanted to use my first day alone to read and write so I sought a quiet — preferably free — place to sit for a few hours. I decided upon Bibliotèque Mazarine — a small, beautiful library located in the sixth arrondissement on the left bank of the Seine.
Based upon my limited, pre-game research, I knew that one can’t just walk in, pull up a chair, and start to work. All seating is assigned, and to reserve a seat one needs a library card. To apply for a library card, you need an ID — for me as a foreigner that means a passport — and need to go to the library’s inscription desk.
Armed with this knowledge, I packed up my computer, books, notebook, and my passport; and I headed out to conquer the Mazarine. The thing is, I expected that this process would largely be conducted in English. I was wrong.
Once I arrived at the outside entrance to the Mazarine — which wasn’t at all obvious — I asked the guard, en Français, if I was at the entrance to the library. She said, oui, and explained to me, en Français, the various options for library cards. She lost me. Je ne comprends pas. I asked, parlez-vous Anglais, and she re-explained the options in broken English. So far so good. Little did I know once I crossed the threshold of the guard station, English would cease to be spoken.
When I reached the interior entrance, I stated the sentence that I had practiced so many times in my head to the attendant. Je voudrais une carte de lecteur. I would like a library card. I was told to go to the inscription desk. And by told I mean, she pointed down the hall, said a bunch of things in french along with one intelligible phrase, a droite, to the right.
Now at the inscription desk, I repeated, je voudrais une carte de lecteur. The attendant asked me to sit. I assume she did since she pointed to the chair in the front of me. So sit I did. She started to ask me a series of questions. I was lost again, but I have gotten pretty good at faking the “face of understanding” and looking as if I’m fully comprehending what is being told me. It’s all in the eyes. The key is to keep them moderately wide and to nod slowly. Then throw in some noise, like a grunt or maybe a “oui” if you feel like saying an actual word.
As the attendant continued to ask me her series of questions, I was desperately trying to grasp onto even a few words. All the while keeping my eyes moderately wide, nodding slowly, and grunting. Yea, I was multitasking. Then it happened. I caught a word word — travailler, to work. She was asking me how I was going to use the library. Would I be checking out books? Using other library resources? Or only using the library as a workspace? It is amazing how a single word can give you enough context to understand an otherwise largely unintelligible conversation. From there, I was able to largely follow what she was asking me. I responded, seulement travailler, only work. I wouldn’t be using the library’s resources, only sitting in the reading room and doing my own work.
I filled out an application for the library card, finally feeling a bit more relaxed, but then the French began again. The attendant began explaining to me how to reserve a seat, what to do if I needed to get up from my seat but not leave the library, and what to do when I was leaving for the day. I believe that she also explained how to use the library’s computer, but don’t quote me on that one.
At this point, I was worn out and needed the French to end. So sounding like a rude idiot, all I could say over and over again was, Je voudrais une place maintenant, I would like a seat now. Throughout this entire exchange, the attendant was kind as could be, and ultimately, perhaps a bit weary as well, she guided me to my first seat in a French library — seat number six.
It was monumental day for me. I completed a semi-complex task almost completely in French on my own. Usually I quickly turn to M if I don’t understand what is being said to me, but not on this day. Now granted, any French seven-year-old could have completed the same task more efficiently, but nowadays I revel in the small victories.