But I Don’t Speak French!

It has been two weeks since I arrived from California and lugged my suitcase up seven flights of stairs to my small studio in the 16th arrondissement. My daily activities consist of people-watching and writing as I sip my café crème on the side walk café near the bottom of my building. However, I am sure to turn in early because when the sun goes down a troop of large white vans containing prostitutes can be seen pulling up against the curb across the street. At this time I begin, typically, my fourth climb up the seven flights of stairs–which amounts to an average of 28 flights per day, or half the Bank of America building in San Francisco.
In two weeks I have managed to find myself locked out of my studio in the very early hours of the morning. I was saved, fortunately, by my Chinese acrobat neighbor who literally went out on a ledge for me: exiting through his window, climbing the building and finally breaking through my window. I have been harassed infinitely on the métro and seriously stalked once; after being followed for one hour I was forced to scream for help, but no one came to my rescue. I have survived on a diet consisting solely of baby food. Surprisingly, however, I have fallen down only one flight of stairs. Then this week I began to suffer from serious abdominal pains and continuous bleeding. Diagnosis: homesick.

My college roommate of two years lives in Paris and has been both my tour guide and translator through this exciting and strenuous adjustment period. When I told her my medical problems, she was concerned and recommended that I make an appointment with her doctor’s office at the Arthur Verne’s Clinic, located at 36 Rue D’Assas in the 6th arrondissement. I called on Thursday afternoon and scheduled an appointment (en français) for 9:30 Saturday morning.

Saturday morning:
7:00 AM–my alarm does not go off.
8:30 AM–I am abruptly awakened by a call from my mother in San Francisco, who is in a frenzy because she cannot find an umbrella she lent me two months ago.
9:00 AM–Un-showered, I have made it to the métro station, boarded the train and become crushed between a short bald man with a red tie and an old woman wearing a brown wig with a bob-cut. I flip desperately through my “Plan de Paris,” determined to find the quickest possible route to the clinic.
9:30AM–I am completely lost. I must have taken the wrong exit at the station. It becomes clear to me that I have followed the directions exactly in the opposite direction and that I must backtrack. I am very late and the more I run, the more blood I feel dripping down my right leg, which makes me woozy–I can’t even stomach ER re-runs.
9:45AM–Only 15 minutes late, I arrive safely at my destination.
The waiting room is empty except for an older woman with glasses sitting in a chair much too low for the height of her desk. The unkind fluorescent lights seem to be focused only on me. I was expecting to have to wait, as in California one’s appointment typically begins between 20 and 50 minutes after the scheduled time. There was no wait–and no time to compose my French. The women behind the desk stares at me so I have to speak, “Bonjour Madame, ewes…J’ai un rendezvous avec–” I am interrupted. I am in the wrong place, I am to go upstairs. I can’t believe I understood her! Pleased with my progress I enter the elevator–which is quite a luxury given my seventh-floor studio with no lift.

The elevator doors open, revealing an even larger waiting room. Now there IS a wait. Everyone’s staring me; do I look that foreign? The woman at the counter is speaking French and it took me a few moments before I realize that she is talking to me. She asks my name and hands me a file. She tells me that I owe 25 Euros for the visit–more than reasonable. I pay her and walk to a chair in the direction she is pointing and sit myself down, relieved that they had not put me in a straight jacket…yet.

As I wait, I fiddle with my file. I drop it, spilling papers everywhere. Embarrassed, I lean to pick up the file. I fall out of the chair landing on my butt on the cold, hard tile floor–which reminds me of first sledding experience. I avert my eyes from the other patients’ pitying looks. I focus on the trim of the manilla file folder, against the tile. Kirsten Jenklther–wait, my name is Kirsten Guenther. True– I have not mastered the French accent yet, but I didn’t think it was that bad.
The doctor’s door opens and a very tall man, about 60 and wearing specs, motions for me to come in. He’s lovely. One of those doctors in black and white movies who gives Ingrid Bergman smelling salts. We say a few words in French, until he realizes that he is not going to be able to understand me. He turns our visit into a mini-French lesson, where every word I know in French I am to speak in French and all others in English–however, he warns me that on my next visit I am to converse only in French.
I told him of my abdominal pains and the constant bleeding, which I thought, perhaps could be linked to the birth control pill I had started taking a few weeks ago. I asked him if I should stop taking it. He pulled his specs down and looked at me over the rims, “What will you use for protection?”
Oh, right. I told him I don’t think that will be a problem, that I’m not sexually active.

“Maybe today non, but tomorrow yes.”

No, not a problem. I have a strong feeling that I won’t be having sex for a very long time. It’s a terrible gut feeling like when Joseph predicted the drought.

It is decided that I will stop the birth control pill, but that I will also come in next week for some tests. Now it is time for my examination. I undress as I search for the Bounty paper towel gown. It’s nowhere to be found. I’m frantic and naked and really, really cold. Please God, don’t do this–I promise that I will learn French. There must be something to cover up with…I start to open the cabinet–and I’m caught. The doctor smiles at me uncomfortably. I wonder if there was supposed to be a gown there and perhaps someone forgot to lay it down and now the doctor thinks that I’m coming onto him…I situate myself on the table–legs in stirrups. The doctor looks up at me a little flustered. He starts pointing down there and mumbling. I’m confused. I can’t understand a word that he’s saying. Finally, I look down at what he’s pointing at—I had left a tampon in! I had forgotten to remove it. He turns his head away as I remove the cotton. I am shamed and mortified.

At the end of the examination, he writes me three prescriptions for different kinds of painkillers. I swear the French could survive solely on cheese and pills. We schedule an appointment to have the tests done, and he wags his finger at me a little about learning French as he says goodbye sweetly. I feel very safe and taken care of–he seemed to know what he was doing, but what do I know. I don’t speak French.

On the way home I stopped to purchase a few groceries. Steak. That’s one good thing about getting sick, you always get to eat the most delicious things, like ice cream. I was losing blood so I needed the red meat for my iron content. I bought two steaks, and I intended to eat them both–my mouth watered the whole way home.

I threw the steaks on the frying pan as fast as I could unwrap them and began boiling the water for my tea. One hour and three teacups later, it’s drizzling outside and the steaks are still rare. Did I forget to turn the stove on? No. I retrieved the package out of the trash bin to review the cooking instructions–my eyes grow large as they pass over the ingredients: 100% vegetable.

Deep breath. I grabbed my teacup and went to the window. I closed my eyes and dreamed of my apartment in Los Angeles, where I had an elevator and a freezer filled with Boca veggie burgers. My old roommate was probably eating one now without me, on our balcony where she’s tanning. They say that when people move to California they never leave. What had I done? Was I being punished for abandoning the golden state? I’m sure it’s just a case of the homesick blues. But still, I knew the weather report by heart and it was haunting me: clear skies, sunny, 78 degrees Fahrenheit.


Kirsten joins Bonjour Paris from Los Angeles, California where she recently graduated from the University in Southern California with a  BFA in Acting. Last year she co-wrote the book and lyrics to a new pop musical which expects to open in Los Angeles next spring. Two years ago, while studying at a conservatory in London, Kirsten fell in love with Paris and decided that she was destined to return for some time. She’s thrilled to experience this dream come true.
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