Swirling a glass of wine at the bar, I silently rehearse the question du jour for my bartender-friend, Réjean, on my final night in Rouen. The Brasserie La Marne is family-run and I fear offending him. Besides, Rouen’s population is only about 106,000 – this town north of Paris may have a more provincial attitude than its glamourous southern neighbour.
Rouen became my personal bedroom community because of its hôtels’ affordability and its proximity to Paris. It was dark when I first arrived, and I walked for several blocks along cobblestone streets until I decided the streets were too narrow, too snaky, and too dark for any hôtel. I ducked into the only business still open – the Brasserie La Marne. My first question for Réjean was: “Is it that there is a hôtel near from here?” I liked him immediately: he was the first Frenchman to not wrinkle his nose at my hooded yellow rain slicker or my accent. He reassured me and sent me further along the snaky street.
I was still doubtful when I found the address—there were no visible lights and I had to ring a doorbell to be let in. But my fears were unfounded. The hôtel was spotless and the proprietors, M. and Mme Brillois, offered suggestions of what to see and where to eat. I would eventually discover fresh cut flowers throughout the lodging, a maid in—what else?—a French maid outfit, and a cat. M. Brillois commended me on my mastery of French and told me I at least tried to speak his language, unlike tourists from a neighbouring country. He said the name of that country followed by ‘Puh!’ He asked me to translate to English.
In the morning, I discovered chance had delivered me to a town with more to offer than reasonable room rates. The Hôtel Normandya stands mere feet from La Tour Jeanne D’Arc. The tower is all that remains of the prison where the French heroine was imprisoned while being tried for heresy and before being burned at the stake by the British. Jeanne was only 17 when she disguised herself as a boy and led an army into battle—the same age I started disguising myself as an adult and sneaking into bars. I loitered about her monument, awaiting a divine message. Nothing.
In the covered market at Place du Vieux Marché I bought a round of Brie from a Fromagerie, the vendeuse poking cheeses until she found one that would be ripe in a week. Back in my room, I stored the cheese on the broad windowsill—all I had for refrigeration.
I spent the next day walking the narrow, cobblestone streets of downtown. The town had preserved their historical districts as pedestrian only. Some streets were too narrow—shoulder-width only!—to accommodate cars. The city had secrets hidden in its alleys: in 1802, Monsieur Francois Antoine Descroizilles, an apothecary, invented the caféolette, forefather to the coffee filter.
On my last day in France, I took the train to Paris. I had to see at least one of the Marchés aux Puces, and I chose the largest.
The Marché aux Puces de Saint Ouen is indeed huge with over 2000 stalls, multi-leveled with vendors selling everything from sneakers to cabinetry, linens to lamps. It’s a shopper’s delight, although the only items I was interested in were too cumbersome, too expensive, or too frou-frou. I cruised the shops, smiled and nodded at the vendors. I overheard just part of one vendor’s conversation with his friend—Est-ce que c’est la femme du jour? Suffering from translation fatigue by then, I had trouble making an instantaneous translation. I repeated the phrase to myself, memorizing it, and worried it over a café au lait and croissant. I mulled it over while riding the subway. I was still working through the phrase when I stopped at the Louvre. It didn’t make sense—femme du jour. Pushing the limits of my vocabulary, I finally convinced myself: they must have labeled me a transvestite.
Okay, so maybe all those buttery-soft croissants clogged my brain, or maybe the wine was doing my thinking, but the reasoning seemed plausible: I’m tall, broad shouldered, and strong of jaw. Stick me sans lipstick in hiking sandals, jeans, and an androgynous yellow rain slicker and it’s probably a tough call which side of the fence I fall on.
I saw this as an unexpected bonus: I’d picked up a Parisian idiom I’d get to use at home. But I wanted to make certain I was right, and thus my final question for Réjean: what’s the slang for cross-dresser?
About halfway through my glass of wine at the Brasserie, I asked Réjean, “Excuse me, what does one call him the man who dresses himself like the woman?”
Réjean’s eyes clouded and he looked me over before he answered. He whispered, “One calls him…homosexuel.”
“No, not homosexual,” I tried to tell him. “I want to say: someone who dresses himself in the clothing of ladies.”
“That’s all,” he said. “Homosexuel.” A wave of his hands and the conversation was over.
Something had been lost in translation.
The next morning, before the sun was even up, I made my final trip to Rouen’s train station. There was a chill in the air and I could see my breath as I trudged past the monument to a woman who dressed like a man. I’d remembered to pack the Brie from the windowsill, but I left behind an unsolved translation mystery.
Shelley Sheremeta is a Guest Contributor for Panorama
Shelley’s home base is on Canada’s soggy left coast. She has pieces published or forthcoming in Geist, Room, Stitches, Rappahannock Review, and others.