The other day I alluded to my first visit to the post office, which only required that I find the right mailbox for a pre-paid envelope. Well, I had to go back to la poste this week to buy postage for two postcards, and that was a little more involved.
When I got there, there was a line to use the postage machines. Actually, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t entirely sure that was what the line was for, but I’ve found that the best place to gather your thoughts and assess the situation is standing in line. I mean, if I wait around for a few minutes and discover that the line is really for, I don’t know, lottery tickets, I can always pretend like I’ve forgotten something important, shake my head in faux irritation, and slip away to find a different line to wait in. So anyway, not really sure what I was doing but determined to figure it out, I strode into the post office and confidently took my place behind an older woman who had walked in just ahead of me. Not only was she was speaking French – a local! – she was holding a postcard. “Perfect,” I thought, “I’ll watch what she does.” Soon enough, I was at the front of the line and she was at the machine nearest me. I shifted my weight to get a clearer view of her screen.
To my chagrin, despite speaking French, she seemed as unfamiliar with the machine as I was. Nonetheless, I scrutinized her process and memorized every button she pushed, all while pretending (successfully, I hoped) that I was just staring idly off into space, as a bored local might do. Eventually her screen showed the amount of postage due, and it matched what I expected from some earlier Googling. So far, so good.
As she started to pay, though, I heard a clang. She heard it, too. It sounded like her coin had fallen straight through. She glanced at the drawer where postage/receipts/change come out, but it appeared to be empty so she kept dropping in coins.
Clang! Clang! Clang!
At that point, the man behind me in line spoke up en français. I didn’t catch the words he said, until one: tombé. Tombé! Fallen. Her coins were indeed falling through.
The woman laughed a little as she reclaimed her coins from the drawer and went to try again. At about that time, the man behind me and I both noticed that she needed to push the button saying whether she was going to pay with coins or with a credit card—that’s why her money hadn’t been accepted. He tried to give her instructions, but she pushed a different button before he could stop her, restarting the entire process. (“That button means ‘cancel,'” I noted to myself.)
The man behind me gave the sort of half-laugh/half-groan you hear in post offices, grocery stores, and airport security lines the world over, but I was pleased as punch to get another chance to watch what to do. I followed along with her in my head, pushing all the right buttons. Top! Left! Type in the destination country! Left! Left!
When she made it back to the payment screen, she hesitated, but this time I knew what to do. I spoke up in my best French accent: “Les pièces,” I said, reading the text on the button to pay with coins. I stepped up to the machine and pointed to the button. “Les pièces.” She smiled gratefully, pushed the button, paid, and retrieved her stamp. Then she walked away as her change dropped into the drawer.
“Excusez-moi!” I called after her, digging her coins out of the drawer. The man behind me also called out, offering her a more nuanced explanation of the situation, which involved a bunch of French words, the only one of which I caught was monnaie. Money. You have forgotten your money, ma’am.
The woman was really laughing at herself by now but gratefully took the coins from me as I stepped up to the machine, now feeling confident in my abilities. I fairly flew through the postage process, pressing all the right buttons in exactly the right order and even paying with exact change. I had spoken only four words, but with those four words I had managed to make it seem like I knew what I was doing. I was reminded of Mark Twain’s quote, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” That’s about how my French speaking goes—the fewer French words I speak, the better I blend in. But if I choose those words well—well, then, I might just fool them all and be thought Parisienne for half a second.