YOU'RE there -- the largest metro stop in Paris -- Les Invalides. You're trying to get your connection. Bewildered. Not, presumably, for the last time. You hit town three months ago, and although you've acquired an ear for the language, it seems that someone else must have your tongue. You're an American. It's late fall, and the spike heels of Paris' women jut out ruthlessly beneath heavy coats. But it's not too late in the season -- they still wear flesh-tone hose. In your comfortably sneaker-clad feet, you look gauche.
A sign reads correspondance -- and you know it has nothing to do with the post office. You point your map at people, hoping they'll understand you need directions. They think you're trying to pass yourself off as a veteran, or worse, an immigrant asking for handouts.
It's too warm down here. There are too many people -- all knowing precisely where they are going and how to get there! The whir of purposeful activity is maddening.
Up ahead there are musicians playing a violin and a cello. Either it's fusion, or simply ``out'' jazz. You can't tell. They don't seem to know each other, much less exactly what they are playing. You stop walking and listen, grateful for the distraction. It's almost 10 a.m. and the second wave of rush hour is beginning.
``Pardon, . . . Americaine.'' The disdain is only slightly veiled. Humph. . . .
By the marks on your breakfast card at the hostel, you can tell you've been there too long. But at least you found a place that will keep you beyond the customary three nights. Ah, you can relax and let your luggage catch dust!
You crave the sound of your own voice. In three months you haven't pierced the language barrier. But soon, soon. . . . You have a sizable vocabulary, and at the Alliance you sound pretty good when what you want to say emerges in a grammatical string. If only someone would talk to you outside of class! Practice. Your teacher says it's the only way. But you feel awkward. One can after all, eat only so many crudit'es alone before the patron tosses you out for a real paying customer.
The music is disjointed in the tunnel. You turn to move on -- right into the path of an oncoming commuter. She brushes you aside. You head for the moving sidewalk. As you step on, someone behind you gasps and mutters something in authentic, 100 percent French -- the stuff you came here to absorb. In any language it's unprintable. She catches her balance. You muster your courage and in your most disguised French and compassionate tone, you say: ``Attention madame.'' She springs your trap, and miracle of miracles, begins talking. To you? No matter that your comprehension amounts to that of une vache espagnole. You can only manage throaty sounds resembling a position of commiseration. The point is, she's talking -- to you!
You catch something about work and being late. . . . But the rest of the 90-second ride through the corridor is a blur of euphoria. You begin to feel less like a foreigner, more like a Parisian.
Her smile emboldens you. You interject a oui, here and an astonished mais non, there. You feel good. She's a few paces ahead of you now. You're going over your salutary sentence in your head. She alights. Your sentence is strangled somewhere between your brain and your embarrassment. She doesn't hear it. You trip off the sidewalk. Catching your balance, you look up. You took the wrong direction. You're still lost and it's still Paris, but you've almost got Les Invalides committed to memory.