Travel Tales: In Defense of Mimes

Posted by: elraymundo at 1:21 pm on Monday, October 22, 2007
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Euphoria, Travel

In September 1993 I wandered into The Globe bookstore in Prague looking for a place to sit and eat my sandwich. The place was packed and the only seat free was at a table where an old man was chatting with a young woman in her twenties. I approached the table and asked if the empty seat were available.

“Yes, it is,” said the woman in heavily accented English.

I sat down and dug into my sandwich. The old man, a grungy baseball cap perched atop his shaggy white hair, ran his fingers through his white goatee and said to the woman, “Why don’t you ask him if you think it’s so easy?”

I froze with my sandwich halfway to my mouth. “Ask me what?” I said.

“Would you like to hitchhike to France with me?” said the young woman. She asked me, a total stranger, to cross Europe with her as simply and as directly as if she were asking me to pass the salt.

“Well,” I said, “that depends. Who are you and where are you going and when are you going and for how long?”

“Yes, of course,” said Jitka, and she breathlessly explained about how her best friend in the world, a Czech girl who lived in England, was going to be in France for a week and how she was dying to see her and she couldn’t afford a train or a bus and all that left was hitchhiking and she didn’t want to hitchhike to France alone especially across Germany but France would probably be ok but one had to go through Germany first to get to France and so on and so on.

Five minutes later I had agreed to the trip and four days later I was on the side of a Czech highway with Jitka hitchhiking to France. We’ve been friends ever since.

After three days of travel we arrived in La Bastide d’Armangac, a tiny village of about 300 people in the southwestern chunk of France, just east of Mont de Marsan. La Bastide d’Armangac is a very rural village with a tiny central square flanked by a few decrepit, wooden buildings. There is a memorial, as there is in every French town, to the town’s World War I dead, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with ancient family vineyards. The vineyard grapes become armangac, a lesser-known cousin of the twice-distilled brandy, cognac. We found the house we were staying in and I met Milada, Jitka’s best friend, and the three of us spent the days doing mostly nothing but wandering around the village, poking around in the countryside and sitting in the backyard talking.

One afternoon Jitka and Milada decided we needed mushrooms for dinner and so we went mushroom-hunting in the forest. We rode bicycles - old fashioned single-speed bikes with upright handlebars - out among the fields looking for a good hunting place. We were looking for great big huge mushrooms that grew at the bases of trees. All afternoon we pedaled through scenery that looked like it came straight out of a Van Gogh painting: dusty dirt Van Gogh paintingroads flanked by rich, hunter green forests and fields of pale yellow grain where the occasional lone farmhouse stuck up, bright red or yellow or vibrant blue. When we did find a good spot, we laid our bicycles on the ground beside the road and wandered around in the forest.

We found our mushrooms and then, back at the house, realized we had no eggs - a required part of the dinner recipe. Since I wasn’t cooking (what a surprise), I and my nearly non-existent French were sent to the grocery to buy some. The grocery was a rinky-dink little shop, sparsely stocked with goods shelved along the walls and a single free-standing set of shelves standing in the middle of the floor. Two old women chatted in a corner behind a low, wooden counter and a piece of fabric hung across an open doorway that led upstairs to a second floor. There was no “grocery store” lighting like I was used to, it was simply an old wooden room in an old wooden building with an old wooden floor and old wooden shelves lit by a single light bulb and staffed by two old thick-waisted farmwomen with handkerchiefs tied over their heads and grey hair tied back into buns. It couldn’t have possibly been more Old World.

Now, you’d think eggs would have been easy to find in a shop the size of a small school bus. But they weren’t. I searched every shelf, looked in every nook and peeked inside every crate in the place, looking for eggs. I found nothing. Not a single egg. I racked my brain for the French word for “egg” so I could ask for help but I couldn’t find the word. I shot a look over at the two women in the corner chattering away in French. Neither looked like they had been more than a mile from the farm and I knew English wasn’t going to be an option. With a rising panic, I began to realize that I was going to have to pantomime an egg.

I made my way over toward the women. They stopped chatting and looked at me with flat, blank expressions. I imagined myself with my hands tucked into my armpits, arms bent at the elbow, flapping and clucking like a chicken. One of the women raised an eyebrow the way people everywhere do to ask, “What do you want?” I imagined squatting, putting my hand under my butt and then bringing it back up as if it were holding an egg.

I may not have known the word for egg but I did know one thing: this was going to be humiliating.

I reached the counter and said, “Avez-vous…” and paused. The women looked at me, waiting for me to finish. Then, just as I was about to flap and cluck and lay an egg, I stopped altogether. My eyes widened and I smiled as a sudden thought struck me. Flan! I thought. Flan has eggs!

I raised a finger to the ladies and then zipped around to the far side of the center shelf. I grabbed a box of flan and flipped it around until I saw the list of ingredients. I rapidly ran my finger along the box beneath the indecipherable French words until I found the word I needed: oeuf. Egg! Saved!

I took out a pen and wrote oeuf on my hand, and then wrote avez-vous in front of it for good measure. I marched to the counter in the corner of the shop, peeked at my hand and proudly announced, “Bonjour, madames, avez-vous les oeufs?” One woman stuck out her bottom lip, shrugged and lifted a tray of eggs from beneath the counter and presented them to me. I laughed, took several and paid. The women looked at me as if I were insane. Then I waved goodbye and left the shop. Eggs in hand I strutted back to the house with my dignity intact and my hard-won contribution to a fine evening’s dinner.

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