The reason for this title will (or should) become clear by the end of this post, but I might as well say upfront that I didn’t understand Casablanca when I first saw it. At nineteen I didn’t know enough about love or French, and someone’s head was blocking the English subtitles. The movie was being screened by the French department at Fergusson College, that august institution of postsecondary learning at which I spent six years of my life a lifetime ago.
My fellow Americans will be surprised to learn that these six years were not four undergrad and two graduate, but two of JC (aka junior college, as they call grades XI and XII in India), three of BA, and one of my first MA. I did the second year of my first MA at Pune University, that august institution of postgraduate learning that was recently renamed Savitribai Phule Pune University. It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but I’m glad the name-changers chose someone to whom I, as an educated Indian woman, owe a debt of gratitude. Savitribai Phule (1831-1897) and her husband and fellow reformer, Jyotirao (1827-1890), were pioneers of women’s education in India, opening the country’s first school for girls in what was then called Poona.
You will have noticed, dear reader, that I wrote eleven and twelve in Roman numerals in the foregoing para. That’s not because that’s how we referred to those grades back when I was collecting thoughts on art from the Arts. I did it because I wanted the chance to repeat something I read in the Sunday Times of India this week. In the “Pastforward” year-end special section, the “Oops” of 2014 went to a news anchor’s referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping as “Eleven Jinping.”
I don’t think the Chinese as a whole will mind, though. They’ve been claiming kinship with the Romans for centuries, saying that spaghetti was copied from noodles post-Marco Polo. “Xi” asserts China’s Italian connection as much as it asserts its non-English connection. I mean, if the Chinese had wanted to assert their ties with the language of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, they’d have spelt it She Jinping… Either way, I’m glad that when my hometown became Pune two decades post-Independence, no one thought of spelling the word phonetically. It’s more fun with the pun.
But this post is not about Chinese connections or about puns. It’s about my nine-hour layover in Paris en route to India. I booked my trip on Air France because it had the best price and the most convenient arrival and departure timings. The nine-hour layover in the city I’ve wanted to visit since I started learning French all those years ago in grade XI was a bonus. A francophone friend advised me to brush up my French because the French don’t like speaking English in France, so I began to do the needful at the earliest (since I was also brushing up my Indian English).
My efforts (at least as regards French) paid off – and even before I boarded the flight out of LA. At the Air France counter at LAX, I spoke to the agent in French, saying “Je n’ai pas compris” (“No comprendo”) whenever he responded in his native tongue. I’m convinced it was my bad French and not my bad back that motivated him to take the payment for my second bag, though he should really have sent me to another line for that.
When we touched down in Paris, my broken French did more than an MA in English could have done. Immigration officers, airport officials, and other passengers would smile whenever I spoke in French, and they all helped – or pointed me to someone who could. And knowing French helped me acquire a fellow Paris Pioneer.
He was poring over a map near Les Baggages du Monde, the luggage locker at CDG, as I was on my way to store my hand baggage for a few hours. I recognized him from my flight and asked if he was going to Paris. It was my lucky day because he was from LA and yes, he was planning to visit the famous monument during his ten-hour layover in Paris. Soon we were making our way to Les Baggages, where he paid to store his baggage and mine.
Now I’m not in the habit of asking strangers to pay my way, but I realized at the counter that I’d forgotten my UK ATM card in LA, and my credit card was declined because I hadn’t told them I might be using it in Paris. “I can’t believe I’d be so dumb,” I lamented as he paid the fourteen euros for my two bags. (Actually, I could believe I’d be so dumb, but it seemed better to say I couldn’t in front of a stranger.) Forgetting my UK ATM card in LA might have been among my dumbest mistakes, but read on.
I told Zev (for that’s what my companion’s parents had named him twenty-some years ago) that I’d pay him as soon as we found an exchange bureau. To reassure him that I was as good as my word, I took out a copy of Pioneer Boulevard from my purse and said, “I am this person. If I don’t pay, you can write something negative about me.” I don’t usually tell strangers that I have written a book, but I owed this guy money. What’s more, I was planning to ask him to take a photo of me with Pioneer Boulevard when we reached the Eiffel Tower, so he might as well know sooner rather than later.
His reaction caught me by surprise. I thought he’d be casually interested, saying something American like “Cool” or “Wow,” but he was genuinely interested. He asked what the book was about, why I had written it, and a few other questions that I’ve only had from other writers . . . And he is a writer! He’s enrolled in an MA in creative writing somewhere on the Continent. To protect his identity, I won’t mention any further details except that he said his parents have visited India and his mother enjoys reading books by Indian writers!
Even on a cold, drizzly Monday afternoon, Paris was as lovely as I had imagined it to be. The Champs-Élysées was disappointing because of the traffic, and because I was desperate to reach the famous monument before dark. As we were waiting to cross the fabled street, I asked a man standing to my left, “Savez-vous où es la Tour Eiffel?” He stared at me apologetically and replied, “Hablas español?”
I laughed out loud. I had come all the way to Paris only to hear the question I hear constantly in LA! Then Zev (who does speak Spanish) explained that we’re from LA, and the man also laughed. He didn’t know how to get to the Eiffel Tower and wished us luck as he disappeared into the crowd. In the end, it was not my faltering French but Zev’s unerring in-built GPS that got us to our destination.
When the famous monument was within sight, I realized my second mistake: I had left my camera in my hand baggage, and my phone battery was low. Very low. We clicked away regardless (I was taking photos of Zev too, because something was wrong with his phone), but none of the Eiffel Tower photos appeared in my photo gallery. A
clown man dressed as a clown barged into the picture as we each posed with the tower in the background, and then demanded that we pay him. I hadn’t wanted him in my picture in the first place, so I showed him my camera and said, in a French accent (since my French deserted me at this critical moment), that there were no photos to pay for. An angry scowl appeared beneath the clown’s smile painted on his face.
After this not-so-comic relief, I remembered the matter of my debt. The exchange bureau was too far and it was nearing time for me to head back, so I asked Zev if he’d accept US dollars instead. He graciously said yes. And then, as I opened my purse to find my wallet, I asked if he would accept a copy of my book as part of the $21 I owed him. I never expected him to graciously say yes a second time, so I took out the money. But he took the book from my hand.
“What the heck,” he said. “I can give it to my mom when I’m done.”
And that’s how, dear reader, I sold the first copy of my book outside the US – right in front of the Eiffel Tower, too! You’ll have to take my word for it, because my phone was dead by then so we didn’t even attempt to capture the moment on camera. But I have my memories, Zev has Pioneer Boulevard, you have this post and, as Bogart tells Bergman in Casablanca, we’ll always have Paris.
As time goes by . . . No matter what the future brings . . .