100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 27: My French Girlfriend – Part One
By Dave Fox
[This rough draft was hastily concocted during the 100 Hours of Humo(u)r online blogathon. It ended up being one of my better creations during the event.]
She was neither French nor my girlfriend, but that’s what the bus drivers and I called her. The first time I encountered her, on the boat from Stockholm to Helsinki, I figured out quickly to keep my distance.
She was an old school tour guide, the kind who dripped superficiality and soaked up far more appreciation from her groups in her imagination than I suspect she did in reality. On the overnight ship between Sweden and Finland, she would stand by the buffet line exit, complimenting her tour members and any other innocent victims who happened to cross her path, on their amazing choice of dinner items. It didn’t matter what they chose to shovel onto their plate. She would swoon with fervor to convince them they had just assembled the most phenomenal buffet meal in history.
“Ohhhh,” she would coo in her English that was just a little too perfected. “That looks verrrry delicious!” She could do it in French and German as well. She would then beam at the person holding the plate with an ingratiating, nuclear glow, satisfied only if the person with the herring plate gasped in appreciation of her compliment.
I think I confused her. On the few occasions I encountered her, she seemed to vaguely recognize me, ever so slightly more than she recognized the rest of her tour members. That was the problem. I was not one of her tour members. I was a tour guide, working for a different company. So my face was familiar, moreso than any of the people she’d been traveling with for the last ten days. I developed a sick fascination for her ability to look people straight in the eye and compliment them on whatever service she had just provided, yet be so clueless at the same time as to whom in a dining room filled with hundreds of hungry tourists might be traveling with her.
On two occasions, she had complimented me on my food selection – once in two different languages, trying to remember if I was French or English. Both times, I will confess, I enjoyed the little mind game I played back, staring blankly. Did I not understand? Was I not in her group? Was I being unfriendly? Or a combination thereof? She could never tell.
Until one summer when she cornered me at breakfast at the Hotel Elveseter, high in the mountains of central Norway.
“The Norwegian goat cheese is verrry delicious,” she said to me in English as I groped my way sleepily toward my table with a food benign to all Norwegians.
“Ja, takk skal du ha,” I replied in her native language, which I happen to speak better than the average American. “Yeah, thanks.”
“Oh,” she said, switching to Norwegian. “I didn’t realize you were Norwegian.”
I should have left it there. But for years, she’d been making my skin crawl – without any seriously ill intent, I must acknowledge. For a split second, before I could think about whether this was a good thing to say, more Norwegian words left my mouth.
“I’m actually American,” I muttered, at which point she stalked me to the coffee line, lecturing me the entire way on the history of California.
It was time to leave. Time for me to get my group on the tour bus – over the mountains and through the fjords, to the ferry dock in Kaupanger. We drove for a few hours. I forgot all about her until we reached the ferry dock in Kaupanger.
It was almost lunch time now. My group was back off the bus, standing in a clump of several hundred other tourists to board the boat that would arrive momentarily. I was hanging back with our driver to make sure the bus would make it on the ferry. A woman in my group ran up to me.
“Dave,” she said, “there’s another tour guide in line who says her group gets priority boarding, and none of us are allowed on the ferry until after her people have boarded. Is that correct?”
These ferries could be crowded. I’d seen another guide play this game once before.
“No, it’s not correct,” I said, walking toward the boat in search of the offending misinformer.
There she was – the same guide – telling her group in French they had priority and should not let all these other rude people push past.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted in Norwegian. “What exactly are you saying?”
“Oh there you are,” she scolded me in English, loudly enough for my tribe to hear. “I was looking for you. You must stay with your tour group or they could miss the boat. It’s very crowded here.”
“But how will they miss the boat when they’re standing at the front of the line to board?”
“You need to explain to them my group gets to go on first.”
Hoping to avoid a scene, I switched back to Norwegian. “Your group doesn’t get to go on first. What are you talking about?”
“We do. We have reserved seats.”
“But this boat doesn’t have reserved seating.”
“Yes it does. We always have reserved seats.”
“Can I see your tickets?”
“It’s not printed on our tickets,” she blustered in a how can you be so idiotic? bark.
“Then you don’t have reserved seats,” I smiled.
“We’ve reserved lunch for our group in the restaurant.”
“Okay. I’ll ask in the snack bar when we board. I’m sure they’ll have ‘reserved’ signs for you.”
“We’re not eating in the snack bar. We’re eating in the restaurant.”
Now I was baffled. “There’s only one restaurant on this ferry,” I said. My groups always picnicked on board because the café was disappointing.
“No,” she said. “We are eating in the downstairs restaurant.”
Wait, I thought. THAT room?!
That’s when I figured out which “reserved seats” she was talking about. I had seen unfortunate groups trapped in there before – a windowless dining room beneath the observation decks that slopped out institutional lasagna as we glided through scenery National Geographic has called the “most beautiful tourist destination in the world.”
“You don’t need to worry,” I smiled. “My group won’t be going in there.”
“But you mustn’t board until after we are seated! That is the rule and you know it!”
And that’s when I understood. That wasn’t the rule. She knew it wasn’t the rule. She was showing off for her group of Frenchmen, knowing at least some of them would understand our English well enough that she could later sputter to them about the unjust other guide who she had gallantly protected them from….
[To be continued next hour….]
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