Orbital mechanics and the joy of travel

One of the first days we were here we ended up over near Opéra and decided to walk all the way back to our apartment in the Marais, hoping to stop for some lunch along the way. Unfortunately, the neighborhood was rather pricey, and we passed bistro after bistro with white tableclothes where men in suits drank bottles of wine. Finally we spotted a simple brasserie with reasonable prices and went in.

The interior was pure 70's — all wood paneling and vinyl booths. There were two men inside, each smoking and drinking coffee at tables at opposite ends of the room. A husband and wife ran the place and quickly brought us menus when we were seated.

Suddenly being in Paris seemed difficult and annoying. There was no charm in this cheap brasserie. I didn't feel any Parisian romance or awe. I didn't even feel the excitement of travel, of being somewhere new and different. Instead I felt hungry and cranky and my feet hurt and I was tired of walking. And I felt like we'd made a mistake. We ordered croque monsieur and a glass of wine from the proprietor in French and our food arrived promptly.

We ate mostly in silence, pausing only to check our map and plot our route back to our apartment. When we were finished, the husband came over with our check and asked if we were English. With slight dread I responded,

"Non, nous sommes américaines."

His face lit up and he called across the restaurant to his wife behind the bar,

"They're American!" (but in French, of course) and with that, he proceeded to pull up a chair and began chatting with us.

I'd always assumed people's interest in meeting Americans, if it ever existed in the first place, was long gone in big touristy cities like Paris. But this gentleman began to explain his love for America and Americans and started telling us about his son who's an aerospace engineer who was going to head to the University of Texas at Austin to get a Master's in orbital mechanics. Alas, something on account of September 11th has prevented it and he hasn't been able to go.

Jason smiled as I tried to ask the man, in really garbled French, about his son's undertaking of orbital mechanics. (Since I have really no knowledge of orbital mechanics in English, why I attempted to discuss the topic in French is a mystery to me.)

"Comme le Space Shuttle!" I said. Apparently le Space Shuttle isn't the exact translation of "the Space Shuttle." Monsieur did not understand me.

"La lune, comme la lune et le monde (hand gesture of orbiting moon around earth) et la avion — le Space Shuttle — que va la, a la space." [translation: the moon, like the moon and the earth and the plane — the Space Shuttle — that goes there, to the space.]

I have no idea where I was going with that sentance, but eventually he nodded, and we agreed that we both understood that his son would have studied orbital mechanics in Texas were it not for September 11th. And then we sat there smiling at one another, pleased with our ability to communicate effectively with such a large language barrier between us.

He decided he should get back to work so he went back behind the counter and updated his wife on our conversation. We paid and headed towards the exit,

"Merci, au revior," we called and waved.

Monsieur and madame both came over. Monsieur extended his hand to me and gave me a formal and enthusiastic shake. Then he said something about Americans, the general effect being that it was a great thing we were American and that he loved America and Americans. Smiling, he turned to shake Jason's hand as well.

"Américaines," he said again, as if amazed.

"Au revior," we repeated and smiled as we stepped out the door and headed on our way home.