On yet another night where consciousness languished in that purgatory out of range of the delectable mountains of sleep my sinner’s soul prayed in penance for the mistakes of the day and my feeble unfocused mind wondered to France, to Angers, to L’Universite Catholique de l’Ouest, in the Loire Valley. Everyone called it ‘Le Catho’. I haven’t been on the Angers side of Memory Lane in many eons. It’s memories that embedded themselves and floated through my psyche like a montage of frames on an old movie reel. My mind settled on incidents of racism, and I smiled to myself. I watched my mind’s eye’s movie of the silly similar incidents of racism that one encounters.
When I first arrived in Angers I was placed in a lodging. It was someone’s home. They rented rooms to foreign students. I was at the Centre International d’Etudes Francaises (C.I.D.E.F.), the Language School, specialising in French as a foreign language. It was intense French. It was very international. There were students from everywhere in the world.
At my lodging I took a shower every morning and evening, as is normal, for three days. Days were long and a shower before bed assisted sleep. Who starts their day without a shower? I’d been there for three days. I’d had six showers. It’s normal, right? The lady who owned the house told me that Tuesday was my shower day, and I shouldn’t take more than one shower on that day. She said I could not shower on other days. I was 19yrs old and I had never heard of a person having a shower a week. Eeek! I insisted that I took a shower every morning, and most evenings. She said this was not allowed. I was to shower once a week and wash with the bidet, then do instalments; that is to wash top and tail on other days.
Naturally I hotfooted it post haste to the housing office to ask them to move me immediately. At the housing office I met Claire who had a one-bedroom apartment that her parents had rented for her. Claire was French and was doing a degree in English language and literature. She wanted a roommate who spoke English. Ah, fortunes smile! I moved in with Claire. We alternated days speaking French, then English. Well that was the plan. I didn’t speak much French then. I’d just arrived. I was all right speaking to Claire. It was fun learning that way. However, I was shy of speaking French in class and to strangers. I’d get embarrassed and freeze with strangers; even with Claire’s friends. I’m the same way now about speaking Zulu. I wasn’t shy as a rule. I was outspoken and generally confident, often joyfully loud and gregarious, but I had a block when it came to speaking French, which was odd because back then I had ambitions to be an interpreter at the UN.
My shyness was cured the day indignation transmuted into apoplectic rage.
I had bought, at considerable pain to my meagre allowance, a bomber jacket. The pockets were slits on either side with little blue leather triangles at the top and bottom of the pocket. It was a lovely gabardine jacket. It was cream. Cream is impractical, so my jacket soon had to be drycleaned. This was another expensive exercise. The drycleaner removed the little blue triangles from my jacket for dry cleaning purposes, but neglected to put them back, which I immediately recognised when I went to collect it.
I pointed this out. The drycleaner said I must pay extra to have the triangles put back. Was he out of his mind? I didn’t feel confident to fight this battle in French. I ventured to try, but the drycleaner kept telling me that he didn’t understand me, though I was sure I was using the right words and conjugations. He was becoming aggressive. He was bullying me. I’ve never liked being bullied. I’ve never been one to back down when bullies try to ply their talents on me. I recognised that this was just racism. I wasn’t intimidated. I was pissed off. I went to fetch Claire to translate for me. Let him tell her that he didn’t understand her. I was furious and it was not long before I was shouting at the xenophobic drycleaner. Claire was polite and she changed what I was saying. What was down dirty and forthright in English she turned into apologetic sweetness in French. What the hell? What kind of simultaneous translator was she going to turn into? I was better off on my own.
I went for it. By now I was angrier than I was shy. I wasn’t’ always correct in my conjugation of verbs or construction of sentences, but I didn’t care. I often had to turn to Claire for words, but I was getting my point across. This fool wasn’t going to ruin my jacket and get away with it. Every time he said he didn’t understand I told him that he understood perfectly “Tu comprend tres bien.” I purposely used the familiar “Tu” rather than the formal “Vous” which is for respected individuals and strangers, and I plowed on. There were probably things that I got wrong and he genuinely didn’t understand, but he knew what I was talking about, even if I used the wrong words. When I think of it now, I’m surprised he had the time. But then, Angers was a slow town. There were students from 50 countries at least, and I wasn’t the only black one. He must have denied himself a lot of business with that attitude.
Other people came into the dry cleaners from time to time. I yelled at anyone who tried to interrupt me. “Attend”. “Wait!” People left with their clothes. The drycleaner said he would call the police. I told him to call them. I told him that he was a fraud. “Tu es une fraude”. I called him a thief. “T’es un voleur.” Claire was the uber polite, meticulously bred daughter of landed gentry. She was very uncomfortable with the whole altercation. She tried to calm me down, but this racist had enraged me beyond reason and I was expressing my rage. I would die before I would back down.
Eventually he said that he would replace the little blue triangles, but I must never come to his dry cleaners again. “Of course (biensur)”, I told him. “I’ll never come back here, and I’ll put a notice in the University Newsletter, Le Catho, that no one should come here”. I refused to leave until he’d replaced the triangles, which he did while I waited. I left with a bright “Merci!”.
Claire was horrified that I had been so rude to the racist drycleaner. I explained to her that I was taught at a very early age not to take racist shit from anyone. I certainly was not going to take racist shit from the drycleaner. I fought. I won. I didn’t see her problem. I told her she should be proud of me. “I’m speaking French”! Not only had I fought and won, I’d fought and won in French. I was on could 9.
After that I began to do so much better in my classes. Where I had previously been a good student I became a very, very good student. I began to love language lab. I now participated enthusiastically in conversation class. I also did what the university recommended, but I’d been shy to do. I started hanging in the local café’s, talking to locals, eating croque monsieur, drinking blonde, which is a sweet French beer, and learning the French that people actually speak as opposed to the French that the classroom demands.
When I went, some years later, into a pharmacy in the south of France to buy some liquid soap, ‘Savon Liquide’ and the girl behind the counter tried the “I don’t understand” thing on me. I smiled. By now I’d graduated. I spoke beautiful French. I asked her what languages she spoke. French. “C’est tout”? “That’s it”? I said. She didn’t respond. She didn’t need to. I started to tell her, in French about me. I told her that I spoke French, obviously better than she did, since I knew what ‘savon liquide’ was. I told her that I was a product of the Universite Catholique in Angers and Franklin University in Lugano Switzerland and at both institutions I studied French. I asked her if she’d attended University. She didn’t respond. I plowed on and she listened to my lovely French. I was being snotty, but I didn’t care. She was being racist. I told her that I also spoke excellent English and Italian. In Lugano I’d learnt Italian. My Italian wasn’t excellent, but that was an unhelpful detail.
I told her that she would spend her life working in this little pharmacy in this little backwater of nowhere in France, where she would only ever speak French badly even though it’s the only language she speaks. I let her know that I was on my way to be a translator at the UN and stupid girls like her were mistaken if they thought I was going to buy the “I don’t understand”, crap because I was in no doubt as to what ‘savon liquide’ was. She was silent and red faced. “Maintenant tu comprend, n’est pas? Alors, je veux savon liquide s’il te plais.” “You understand now, don’t you? So, I want liquid soap please.” She started to tell me again that she didn’t understand but the lady behind me who’d come in toward the end of my tirade was impatient and yelled at the girl, “For heaven’s sake, I don’t have all day, give her liquid soap”. The girl went to get the soap. I left with a cheerful “Merci!”, and a skip in my step. ‘Bring it on you racist A-holes. Make my day.’ I thought to myself.
On another occasion I was in Geneva with friends at a nice looking restaurant. By now I was a student in Lugano. Geneva was just a three hour train ride up the road. My friends didn’t speak French, so I did the ordering. I ordered a bottle of red wine. “Un bouteille de Vin Rouge”. The waiter did the same thing. He did the “I don’t understand” thing. What is it with these people? He was trying that shit on the wrong girl. I stood up in that restaurant and demanded the attention of everyone present. “Excuser moi, Messeur, Dames. Votre Attention s’il vous plait”. “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please”, I shouted tapping my glass with a spoon. I had the attention of many tables. I think the actress in me was emerging. The UN ambition was receding. “Serait quelqu’un s’il vous plaît expliquer ce qui est une bouteille de vin rouge. Le serveur m’a dit qu’il ne sait pas. “Would one of you please explain to the waiter what a bottle of red wine is, because he tells me he doesn’t know what it is”. There was laughter and applause from some of the other patrons. Then the Maitre D came rushing over with a bottle of red wine on the house and apologies. He was wise to do so. I mean this is Geneva, the home of the UN. It’s an extremely cosmopolitan city, for heaven’s sake.
I miss being combative in that way only one’s youth allows. It’s not just that I didn’t take shit. It’s that it didn’t occurr to me to take it. It didn’t occur to me not to put the racist Eurotrash idiots who pretended not to understand in their place in their language. The indignation I felt at that drycleaners made me a harridan against that type of petty racist BS.
Would I still react in the same way? No, I’m all grown up, now. I’d still deal with it, but differently. I’ve learnt to be less confrontational, or less confrontationally confrontational, although I confess to having moments. Today, I wouldn’t argue with the girl in the pharmacy. I’d deal with her boss. Would I stand up in a restaurant and perform for all assembled? No. The world has changed. I’m no long enraged by such ignorance. I’m mildly impatient with it. I pity the petty racists their lack of intelligence and worldliness. Today I’d probably have a quiet chat with the restaurant manager and request he appoint me a different waiter.
These trips down memory lane make me smile. I like who I was then.