There’s a special kind of sin that you can commit in Paris: in the city with one of the most renowned cafe cultures in the world, you can go to Starbucks. It’s actually pretty popular–the one down the street from the apartment that I rent when I’m in town is always busy (and unlike an American Starbucks in that the terrasse (patio, roughly) out front is always full of people smoking).
Starbucks does have two things going for it: (a) it opens before any of the cafes on my block, and (b) you can get the really big cups of coffee there that we Americans are so accustomed to, and that are quite different from the small cup of espresso that you get if you go into any normal French place and ask for un café, s’il vous plait. So, on this, my first day back in Paris, having neglected to buy coffee for the apartment yesterday, I walked in. I felt guilty, mind you–but, I did it.
Although Starbucks does have those two things going for it, it also has a real downside, and today it led to linguistic humiliation for me. As I mentioned in a previous post, my name doesn’t work very well in France. It’s not completely unknown, thanks to the popularity of Kevin Costner, but it’s not pronounced the same as in English, and when I pronounce it the American way, it gets wildly misinterpreted. This is a problem at Starbucks, where they want your name so that they can write it on your cup.
Today, when the barista at Starbucks asked me for my name, I thought, screw it: I’m going to give her my name in French. Now, you have to realize that my name is pronounced in French nothing like in American English, so I was taking a big chance here. Kévin, I said. I can’t even describe to you what this sounds like–we don’t have the second vowel in English. (In the International Phonetic Alphabet, it’s [kevɑ̃].)
Now, you have to know that I had fumbled when the barista asked me for my order, due to my crankiness about the whole Starbucks tall/grande/vente terminology. So, I was especially disappointed when, after telling her my name in my best French pronunciation, she gave me a puzzled look and asked–in English–“what was your name again?” This set off a linguistic chain reaction. When she asked the guy behind me for his name, he spelt it–it was “Glen,” as American as can be–and the guy behind him ordered totally in English. Either this morning I contributed a tiny bit to the death of the language that I am trying so hard to learn, or there were hella Americans in line today.
So: I committed a very Parisian sin, and I received a very Parisian humiliation as a result. That seems fair–First World Problem, I guess.
- gêné(e): embarrassed.