Une Petite Leçon d’Humilité

Claque.

That’s the sound in French for closing a door. Or being seized with panic before kicking yourself for being an idiot.

I stood there, in front of the apartment, dumbfounded before frantically searching my pockets. I managed to extract my phone and about seventy centimes before shaking the door gently. My phone glowed cheerily back up at me in the darkening hallway. 20:15.

Merde.

Unbelieving, I searched my pockets again, hoping the keys would materialize and this would be just a false alarm. No such luck. I stuffed my plastic bag back into my pocket and sat down on the stairs next to the door. It will be ok, I reassured myself, They just left for dinner at a friend’s house in the neighborhood, so they’ll be back in a couple hours.

Then, an idea.

A little less than a minute later, I’m knocking on the door of the guardienne, an adorable older lady from Portugal who only comes up to my waist and whose apartment sits just off the entry hall to the building. Her equally adorable dog comes out to see who the visitor is, and I relate my sad story to my little audience of two: I don’t mean to bother you, but I was going to the grocery store when I realised I didn’t have much money in my wallet, so I went upstairs and took some from my desk, but apparently I set my key down, and now I’m locked out of the apartment. Do you happen to have a spare one?

The dog stares up at me, clearly nonplussed, but fortunately, his mistress is more sympathetic to my plight. Unfortunately, she does not have an extra key to the apartment, but perhaps she has my host family’s number. She rifles through some papers and pulls out something– alas, it is an old number or the one to their landline. In my head, I’m banging my head against the wall; Madame Julienne just gave me her cell phone number the other day, but it is written in my notebook next to the keys in question upstairs, not in my American iPhone in my pocket.

That’s ok, I say, giving the dog a little pat, more to reassure myself than him, as she lets me back into the stairwell. I’ll just wait.

A short elevator ride later, and I’m sitting morosely on the stair once more. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it is that I took my iPhone with me and not my French cell phone. Both are equally useless as far as making telephone calls goes, but at least I can access the wifi from within the apartment and amuse myself online. Facebook informs me rather bluntly that none of my friends are online to chat. The clock at the top of the screen flickers momentarily: 20:45.

Trying to stave off the wave of loneliness and disappointment that threatens to overwhelm me, I rest my forehead on my arm across my knees as I begin to pray. A short time later, the door across the hall opens and the neighboring lady steps out, trash bag in hand. She and I are mere acquaintances, but I can’t help but smile at the irony of the situation: considering our first meeting was here in this same spot only a week earlier, when I was also locked out of the apartment upon my arrival in Paris since my host family was out at the time, we seem to be developing an unusual relationship.

I quickly explain my foolishness to her, and she kindly asks if there is anything she can offer me. I insist that I’m fine, but my mouth is feeling a bit dry in my anxiousness, so I take her up on her offer and ask for a glass of water. She invites me in and offers me a banana to go with it, and soon, I have joined her and her husband in their living room, where we watch a series of television shows about the love-hate relationship between England and France.

Fortunately, I find the shows interesting, and I soon find myself immersed in the constant stream of French emanating from the television, occasionally offering my own commentary to reply to that of my newfound neighbors.

Hours pass, and still no sign of my host family returning. It is a Saturday night, after all, and my hostess speculates that it could be any hour of the morning before they get back. Eventually, we all begin to grow drowsy, but the silvery chiming of the clock on the mantle each hour ensures that we stay somewhat awake. I begin to grow increasingly uncomfortable as we approach midnight and my rescuer has to retire for the evening. Her husband, however, continues to work on his sudoku while I watch a sports wrapup for the second time in a row, and the clock ticks toward midnight.

Finally, mercifully, roundabouts 1:15 AM, I hear the elevator grind to life in the corridor outside. A moment later, I’m stepping out of the neighbors’ apartment to the horrified looks on my host family’s faces. Monsieur, my couch partner, has closed the door behind me, likely off to a well-deserved night’s sleep, and I explain in the most self-effacing way possible the curious story of my evening with Frank and Ethel.

It is hard to tell what their reaction, exactly, is. As we step into our own apartment, they explain to me that le rapport between the neighbors is not so good, that people here are not so nice, and that they’re afraid they might complain to the guardian about hosting students who get locked out of apartments. I explain to them that I had considered checking to see about staying with my American friend who happens to also live in the 16th arrondissement, but that I thought it would be better to stay in the building so I wouldn’t miss them when they returned. Monsieur informs me that in fact, the neighbors across the way are probably the last people I should go to and that it would actually probably be better to go downstairs to the bars in the neighborhood.

Talk about stepping right into the merde. But hindsight is 20/20 and this would have all been very bon à savoir, oh, I don’t know… five hours ago.

No words– French or English– can convey my embarrassment and profound sense of apology for such a stupid mistake (although in my head, I feel slightly miffed for becoming inadvertently embroiled in a local feud, not to mention the fact that in America, we use doorknobs to open unlocked doors, not keys for turning the latch…). We all wish each other an awkward bonne nuit before heading off to our respective bedrooms.

Oh the joys of being a foreigner abroad.

As I pull the blankets over myself to ward off the chills of shame and anxiety I feel, I can only be grateful that I speak French as well as I do or this already regrettable situation would have been about ten times more difficult. And before I let my weary eyes close, I resolve to leave a note of gratitude outside the neighbors’ door tomorrow morning, chalking the whole affair up as an unexpected lesson in French apartment culture and the virtue of humility.

4 thoughts on “Une Petite Leçon d’Humilité”

  1. My favorite part of this (not that it sounded fun and I’m glad you got back in eventually and I hope it never happens again!) is the way it somehow feels like you just told me this whole story in French. (Not that I really speak French…) I have no idea what I mean by that exactly, but I liked it.

    Enjoy!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’d like to think that it’s the whole self-deprecating tone and the random French words scattered throughout the piece. At least, I hope that non-French-speaking readers can figure out what those italicised words mean! 😉

  2. So funny! I love French neighbour feuds – they are so much more open about their dislike of each other than the British I find! In my village you are either for the Maire (Mayor) or not and that decides who will be your friends… or not! As a foreigner I try not to have any opinion that will get me into hot water with anyone but one of our neighbours insists on talking about the neighbour on the other side at the top of his voice calling him “fou” or “bebette” – I have no idea what that latter word means but I don’t think its polite! I ply the indiscreet neighbour with beer or wine trying to keep him quiet. Its a minefield isn’t it! Bon chance, Janine at The good Life France!

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