l'accent tonique
lavoir

colis

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Today's story, by guest author Arnold Hogarth, takes place in Paris, on the charming Ile Saint-Louis....  Speaking of Paris, mille mercis for the fun and inspiring Paris suggestions that you sent my friend, Greg-- who sends you his remerciements.

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Today's word from French Word-A-Day. (...sign up if you haven't already!):

colis (ko-lee) noun, masculine

    : parcel, package

Audio File & Expressions:
Download MP3 sound file and listen to my eleven-year-old daughter pronounce the following:

 par colis postal
envoyer/recevoir un colis

Trois jeunes de 17 à 20 ans ont été placés en garde à vue après le vol de 46 colis postaux. Three youths, aged from 17 to 20, were placed in police custody after stealing 46 postal parcels. --Le Parisien

Book: Tune Up Your French: Top 10 Ways to Improve Your Spoken French

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P  E  R  C  E  P  T  I  O  N  S
by Arnold Hogarth

What is America’s fascination with France? Beyond the museums, walking tours, monuments, cafes----just what is it? Well, for this American, it’s the difference in values, attitudes, and perceptions submerged in the deep waters of each culture.
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When, on occasion, one surfaces – there can be confusion, sometimes angst, but many times great humor, and even moments of sweet poignancy. This story is true . . . (more or less).

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A Paris Lady

Post Office on Ile. St. Louis:
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As I reached for the aluminum glass door to the tiny Post Office located on Ile. St. Louis in central Paris, an old lady carrying a cardboard box, of dimensions approximately 18” x 18”, rushed in front of me and at the last minute crowded between my extended arm and the aluminum handle I was reaching for—and  inserted herself and her box between me and the door. The box could not have been heavy, as she managed it easily with ungloved hands that showed the ash and wrinkles of a very old trooper.
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The temperature was approximately 40 degrees. With neither gloves nor a scarf, she warded off the moist chill with only a worn wool coat, a crown of wiry snow white hair, a black and white checked cotton dress, black leggings and brown boots of the working type, not the fashion type.
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She peered at me through glasses more resembling goggles, and said something in French. I speak no French, so spoke back in English -- and she just looked at me. Just then a teenage girl approached and said, “excuse me please,” nodded politely to the old lady, and said something to her in French. The old lady smiled thinly and the teenager then turned a sweet gaze on me and asked if I would permit the old lady to precede me.
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I smiled at the old lady and she went to the postal counter on the right. The counter to the left had a young man heavily engaged with the clerk. I estimated his transaction would take a long time; so, I lined up behind the teenager, who insisted I go in front of her because I arrived before she had.

“Do you know who that lady is?” the teenager whispered to me in a lovely French accent.
“Why no,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said, “that’s Madam de Gerverseux,” as if I would immediately know who she was.
“Madam de Gerverseux?”
“I think she’s almost 90 now,” the teenager said, “she lives just around the corner in a small ground floor studio apartment.” Madam glanced around at us while the clerk went to the back room to fetch something. From her curious expression, I think she sensed that we were talking about her, and I think she understood some English. Taking a good look at her, I realized that she was quite attractive and her eyes were not old, but crystal blue and very penetrating. She smiled sweetly at me with a long and sturdy gaze.

She didn’t look close to 90--closer to 70--but because of her worn clothes and somewhat bent posture and movements of an older person, I didn’t think twice about her at the door; but, as I say, upon closer inspection, she was very pretty. The clerk returned and there was immediate reengagement regarding madam’s cardboard box.

“So, who is she?” I asked the teenager.
“Before the second war, around 1938,” the teenager said, “when Madam de Gerverseux was around twenty, she was the toast of Paris, a dancer, singer, and one of the great beauties of the era. She was an understudy to Josephine Baker, the famous, American Black entertainer, and worked with her many years at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysèes. All the children in Paris learn about Madam de Gerverseux life. She was also a hero in the French underground movement during the war and responsible for saving hundreds of French lives. Everyone knows who she is and what she has accomplished.”

“But,” I said, “she seems so bedraggled, almost like a street beggar.”
“Oh, no,” said the teenager, “she made a fortune during her time, and as far as anyone knows, she has a lot of money. It is said, though, that she lives like she does, because money is of little value to her. She tells people there’s nothing it can provide that isn’t available without it. We learned all about her in school, and every school child in France knows how wealthy she is.”

The clerk took Madam’s cardboard box from the counter top, cradled it easily on his hip and gently patted the top of Madam’s hand, and said something in French. She smiled radiantly, turned, nodded kindly to me and the teenager, and walked proudly with quick steps and pushed through the aluminum glass door. We watched through the window as she stepped briskly down the sidewalk. The sun was out and shown on her face as she turned and smiled at us through the window.

“I wonder what was in the box,” I said, “such a big box and so light.”
“Oh,” said the teenager, “there’s never anything in the box. She comes almost everyday at about this time, with a similar box and mails it to herself. Sometimes, you will see that the box is torn and scrapped where she has repeatedly removed the old label – and she brings the same boxes in time after time until there are in tatters, and then she replaces them with new boxes.”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to disparage the great women. Just then the clerk said something to me in French, and I shrugged.

“Yes, Monsieur, what can I do for you?” he said in broken English.
“Do you have a box like the one the madam just carried out?”
“Oui, Monsieur,” and he went to the back room. I could hear him rattle around and he soon reappeared with an identical box. “And what,” he asked, “do we put in the box?”
“Just this,” I said, handing him a note I had quickly scribbled.
“And where do we send the box, Monsieur” the clerk asked.
“Do you have Madam’s address?”
“But of course,” Monsieur.
“Please address the box to her,” I said.

As I went to leave, the teenager asked, “Do you mind if I ask what you wrote?”
I reached out my hand and held hers, and told her that I had written - "I love you".
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Arnold Hogarth, 77, was raised in So. Cal. and currently lives in Fallbrook, San Diego county. He is retired and spends two months in Paris each year.

Please help me to thank Mr. Hogarth for his story by leaving your feedback and comments in the comments box! A simple "merci" might really make this writer's day, qui sait?

 

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photos (c) Kristin Espinasse. Lily of Spain flowers thriving along an ancient rock wall in Rasteau.
Valerian flowers (a.k.a. les lilas d'Espagne" growing from dusty ledges along a rock wall in Rasteau).

Thank you for the time you've spent reading my column. If you have learned more than a little vocabulary here and find yourself looking forward to the next story, please know that ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue doing what I love most: sharing these missives from France. Your support is vivement apprécié! Donating via PayPal is fast and easy when you use the links below. Merci infiniment! Kristi 
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