I am a large man. Think of Jack Black if he was the unholy love child of Fred Flintstone and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In America, I blend in like a parade float on Thanksgiving. But in France, in March, when Americans are still at home making their travel plans, when I am the only American in an entire Parisian neighborhood, I am a global anomaly...which I did not know. I had no idea. I’m used to living in a country with wall-to-wall drive throughs. I’m used to a society where fast-food joints are all too happy to promote the crippling magnitude of their portions. Where pants are sized ‘husky’ for mesomorphic nine-year-olds with c-cup boy-boobs who eat 3,000 calorie lunches and sleep with C-pap machines. Where there are off-ramp towns with a half dozen fast-food joints, twice as many churches, and no health care.
But this is a travel memoir so I need to talk about Paris. I need to talk about walking around the City of Macaroons, which I did a shit-ton of because, for some goddamn reason, my attorney thinks I cab too much. This, after my Fitbit reads 17,000 steps. That’s eight miles. No adult should walk eight miles unless they’re stranded in the desert and even then, the prevailing wisdom is to stay put until helicopters show up. But no, we’re in Paris so we walk. And that doesn’t even include the fucking Louvre, which has way too much art to take in one standard lifetime, but we felt obliged to.
Yet, Paris is gorgeous and if you have to walk eight miles due to an aggressively anti-taxi attorney, it’s the place to do it. And the Quartier Pigalle surrounding La Petit Canard is delightful. If you want to find the area for yourself, there’s a church, or a monastery, or something from the Crusades because Paris is like 9,000 years old so there are landmarks...but nothing commonplace that you’d ever see in a tourist brochure. We’re talking the kind of monument a tour guide might mention to another tour guide if they were trying to look hip. Anyway, it’s a normal Parisian neighborhood. Just down the hill, there’s a square blissfully unadorned by anything touristy. No beret collections. No Eiffel tower keychains. Just the people that live there. And a magazine stand. And a kiosk standing nearby solely for the purpose of advertising local stuff. And a meh cafe.
I wanted to go to Le Cafe Meh. We had time, since we’d shown up an hour before our reservation at La Petite Canard. So we ducked (pun intended) in and had cognac and beer and I bought an incredible little notebook from a papeteri and we just sat there. Being in Paris. Doing nothing. Pure bliss. It couldn’t last. We arrived at the doorway of La Petit Canard just as a svelte, handsome couple was leaving. There was an awkward shuffle as I backed up to hold the door for them while they slid past looking at me as if I were leprous.
My son, Roon, wanted a cigarette so I hung out with him on the narrow sidewalk waiting for our table. It was then the incident occurred. I wish to emphasize that I carry no malice toward the French. I think they’re great people with a lovely language and a deep and appropriate reverence for beauty and the sensual life. Hell, I aspire to be French. I was infuriated by Americans with tiny walnuts rattling around in their domes who spent a period in the Aughts referring to fried potatoes as Freedom Fries because France had the audacity to exercise caution in waging war against Iraq until U.N. inspectors actually confirmed that there were in fact nuclear weapons there. I know that there are (mainly American) weirdos on the internet who still rail about France’s allegedly inadequate efforts in World War Two as if they have any idea what they’re talking about.
I consider those people hideous nitwits who deserve to be themselves forever. I am not like that. I love France. I love the French...Except for this one guy. I’m going to call him Todd because Todd is a stupid (and very un-French) name. So, my son grinds his cigarette under his heel and flicks it randomly anywhere, knowing it will land in a butt depository because everyone in France is smoking all the fucking time. Whereupon he steps through the doorway to La Petit Canard just as Todd and his crew of picture perfect twenty-somethings slide into view, gliding up the sidewalk toward me. I’m holding the door open for Roon and taking up a lot of sidewalk so that, quelle horreur, they have to step off the narrow footpath into the cobblestone street. As Todd passes, he glances up, his face the image of terror, like he never saw me until his crew shouldered him sideways to avoid the dangerous obstruction, as if he thought maybe I was a shipping container, and he just looked up and there’s this massive American taking up the whole fucking walkway and he blurts out, eyes perhaps wider than they needed to be, “F-f-fat!”
Not: Regarde, compagnons de ce misérable corpulent!
Not: Là, sur ton sentier, pose les yeux sur l'estomac Américain
Not: L’homme chauve-souris sacré bovins, ce mec est costaud!
Not even: Évidemment du Wisconsin.
Just one word, its opening consonant stuttered as if the man had seen a live tiger in the Louvre.
It was at this moment I wished I had learned French. We’d planned this vacation–I had planned this vacation–at the very last minute. A byproduct of my attorney’s career is that she works all the goddamn time, a symptom of her indefatigable dedication to her profession and a condition of her being raised by shanty Irish parents with aspirations of achieving Lace curtain Irish status and also being Voodoo Catholics, which results in her feeling like all her recent ancestors are all crowded around Earth TV up in heaven, with their arms folded and a look on their faces like someone just backed into their haloes staring at her and wondering when she’s gonna make some real money and do them proud. She keeps busy, meaning vacations are slipped into rare gaps between cases so that we usually have about nine minutes to plan our holidays.
In short, I hadn’t had sufficient notice to learn how to parlayunpoofrancé. But if I had, I would’ve raised my first two chubby fingers in a backwards peace sign, which in Europe is a gesture indicating that the two digits I use to wipe my ass are wiggling in your face, mon ami and I could’ve said something withering en Francais to make his whole skinny-ass cohort cackle.
Like: Ta mère pensait que j'étais chaud et spongieux - la nuit dernière.
Like: Au moins, je peux perdre du poids alors que vous aurez toujours l'air de Paul Giamatti a été écrasé par un Citroen.
But instead I just laughed. I mean, it was pretty funny. The poor bastard. Imagine being young and good-looking and incontrovertibly French and living in Paris. Imagine all the cool sex and dope and snails and waking up every day to fresh croissants while you half-assed pay attention to a swarm of mimes as you bask in the wonders of socialism. And then, into the very middle of your incredible life, as you stroll in the company of potential super-models and hiply unkempt philosophers, you narrowly avoid stumbling into the gaping maw of un Hippopotame Americaine. Imagine the shock! I laughed because I’m an American and I could barely hear him over the resounding clarion call of my joy at being at large in the capital of his gorgeous country.
Bull Garlington is an award-winning author and. His most recent memoirs were IndieFabs Humor Books of the Year. He writes about analog tools in the digital workspace. He lives in Chicago.