It's interesting. As we cycled our way up the Alpe d'Huez (which for any non-cyclists out there, is one of the iconic rides on the Tour de France), I thought about my project of writing every day while on this trip about someone I meet along the way. The thought occurred to me, "Hmmm. How are you going to write about encounters when most of the people you meet will be French, Italian and Greek?" The answer came to me today as we reached Alpe d'Huez and were sitting outside the "Bar L'Indiana."
Mark and I stopped here two years ago and ordered a "Croque Monsieur," which is basically a grilled cheese sandwich with ham. I ordered the same thing today. It's not exactly the summit of French cuisine, but I knew it would provide me with fat and carbohydrates, which is what I needed to complete today's ride.
When it was delivered, with the dulcet tones of Dolly Parton singing "Jolene" in the background, I asked the server (in French) whether it would be possible to have a knife and fork (because of my braces). She replied, rather indignantly, that this was a snack place and a fork was not going to be forthcoming. A knife, however, she could manage. I was grateful. If I had tried to pick up this sandwich and take a bite, the results would have been embarrassing.
I took this in stride because, well, we are in France, and, well, the French can be quite blunt sometimes. So I used my knife, as the above photo demonstrates, but the ham was a killer because I couldn't manage to "cut" it with my teeth, bound as they are in metal. But whatever.
That's why I nearly keeled over when, after we got up to leave and disengage our bikes, a man came up to me and said in English, "Do you speak French?" I knew he was French, so I just didn't even try to pretend. "I speak English," I replied, recognizing immediately how silly that sounded. Of course I speak English; I'm an American. Nevertheless, this gallant Frenchman proceeded.
|My bike is in the foreground. The man who approached me has his back facing the camera, in the grey shirt. This is a close-up of the lead photo.|
"I want to apologize for my fellow Frenchmen," he said. Suddenly, I was feeling lightheaded. No French person in my hearing has EVER apologized for a fellow countryman (or -woman). "I am so sorry that you have received such a poor welcome." At that point, I didn't really know what he was talking about. Then, it became clear as he continued. "All you did was ask for a fork, and to be treated the way you were was unforgivable."
I was astounded. I explained that I had asked for a fork because of my braces. He nodded and said, "I know." "But it's not a big deal," I replied. "No," he insisted, "I want to apologize on behalf of my countrymen for your poor welcome."
What could I do but reach forth my hand and tell him thank you. I wish I had taken a picture, and I swear from now on, I will.
Perhaps only those who have had experience traveling in France will recognize the significance of what I experienced today. My faith in the French is restored. I'm so thankful for that encounter. It, among other things, made me believe that I will have such encounters every day of our trip. Why? Because I will be looking for them.