Learning French With Authority

A few years ago, in Montpellier, southern France, on a modern tram, a man stood like a wrestler at the head of the car, with his legs apart and with an expression on his face that said that he was some kind of system-wide inspector of the most feared kind and that he was about to find the one passenger in the car who had not bought a ticket. The Inspector looked at his watch every five seconds or so, as if it was also his job to be sure that time itself was functioning properly. When he was not checking the time or giving us intimidating looks, he repositioned himself in his wrestling stance, as if the tram floor were wet sand that had sucked him down a little. He also looked out the windows at the passing city, as if to check that everything there was also in order. It took a few moments to understand that a self-appointed state of authority had crept up on him when he wasn’t looking and, like an enchanted cloud, had taken possession of him.

A few days ago, in a bus shelter in Paris, near the Jardin des Plantes, we puzzled over illustrated routes. A man sat on the metal bench smoking and watching us. I asked him a bus question in French. I didn’t understand his answer. Perhaps he hadn’t understood my question. I thanked him anyway and turned back to the map. A man about fifty or sixty, in flood pants—trousers cut strangely high—wearing modern, waterproof sandals, a windbreaker, everything khaki color, as if he were a German retiree, began scolding the man I had not been able to understand.

“You cannot smoke here.”

The man who was sitting was unresponsive and continued to bring the cigarette up to his mouth.

“You cannot smoke here.” The scolder pointed to a spot on the sidewalk outside the shelter. “Step out there.”

The smoker mumbled something.

“Where are you from?” the scolder asked.


“You cannot smoke in here. I am police.”

I do not know what makes me do these things. I had not been in France a week, but I said to the scolder, “You are police?” And then I held up my hand, cupped, in a gesture that said, “Where is your identification?”

The Authority turned his full attention on me. He came very close and warned me that police did not have to show their identification. He said it was against the law to interfere with the police. The situation had sped up beyond the speed of my language readiness, I suppose even in English. Relying on all the French police movies I’d seen, I held up my cupped hand again to show I still wanted to see his identification. Plus, the man, as I have said, was strangely dressed and a little too authoritative. Plus, the French smoke everywhere and no one thinks twice about it. Plus, I thought I might have seen something like this once before.

He demanded to know what country I was from. I said Mexico. He asked me whether I spoke French, German, or English. I continued in French. “You are police?” I held up my hand again.

“Your French isn’t very good,” he said. “Probably your English isn’t either.”

At that moment, the Nr. 89 appeared, I said as much, of course in English, to my partner and gave the Romanian a parting conspiratorial look. He held his cigarette suspended in front of his mouth and seemed mildly amused. I got on the bus with my friend, pressed my Navigo card against the green, jellyfish-shaped electronic button, got my electronic ding, and immediately forgot the man who claimed he was police.

One thought on “Learning French With Authority

  1. Learning French With Authority Batches? What Batches? I don haf to cho you no stinkin batches. (And beware of excercising this sort of free speech in certain areas of Gay Paree, amigo.)

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