The Visit

by Felisa Philippe


Ruth Orkin
, Paying the Waiter, Florence, 1951

I fully expect to read that the French have taken over the world in tomorrow's headlines. Of course, that always happens whenever I see my French in-laws.

Our story actually starts many years ago when an innocent young American spending a year abroad in Paris (that would be me) falls in love with a dashing young Frenchman—NOT a Parisian, as he regularly proclaims—who lives a whopping 20 minutes south of the city border. This wholesome American girl naturally meets his charming French parents who promptly put her on a diet. She is quick to learn, however, that this is not meant to be personal, nor is it a peculiar French characteristic. It is simply an intrinsic flaw in the mother's personality. All relatives and friends who enter the household are put on a diet. This having been clarified to her satisfaction, the young, happy girl agrees to marry her French fellow (or "The French Guy" as he is dubbed by her family in California), and they fly away to America to live happily ever after.

Many lost and regained pounds later, the French parents, now in-laws, decide to visit their son and his American wife at their new apartment in the Bay area. The first few days slip by quite uneventfully. Jet lag is taking its toll, and the in-laws wander about in a fog of sleepy culture shock. However, the third day is when the true fun begins.

At exactly 8:00 AM Tuesday morning, my alarm clock sadistically decides to try and wake up the entire apartment complex. My eyelids snap to attention as my left arm automatically reaches out to hit the offending creature as often and hard as possible until the racket stops. I look to my right to see if this has had any effect whatsoever on my husband who sleeps like the dead. He is peacefully snoring, oblivious to the noisy massacre of the alarm clock.

"Sweetie, you've got to wake up. We have lots to do today." Wrong tactic. The snoring gets louder. "Come on, Sweetie. It'll be fun. We're going to see the wharfs of San Francisco today." Sweetie snarls and rolls to the farthest corner of his side of the bed. I give up and decide to eat breakfast with my in-laws who have been up since 4:30 AM. I stumble out to the kitchen in a blind haze to find my father-in-law playing computer games and my mother-in-law "washing" the dishes.

"Marie," I begin, wondering where to start. No, that's not her real name. Real names will be distinctly avoided in order to protect the innocent. Which would be me. "Marie, you really shouldn't be doing that," I say as I dismally watch her merely pass the dirty dishes and cups under the faucet, while my sponge and dish-soap relax on the countertop. I wonder how I'm going to keep track of the dishes that I'll need to rewash with soap.

"Really, it's no problem," she says as she finishes with the last cup. I stare down at her 60 pound frame of half Italian vocal cords and decide not to pursue the issue. After breakfast, I return to the bedroom to attempt to awaken my sleep-determined husband. However, he has cleverly decided to be sick that day.

"It's okay—I'll be fine for tomorrow. If you could just take care of them today?" I am forced to admit that this makes sense, and so the French parents and I bundle up the necessary photographic instruments and sweaters and head to the most notorious tourist trap of San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf.

I am always amazed at what I learn when talking with my father-in-law. During the car ride to the city in my relatively new Honda, "Pierre" informs me that not only is Honda going to declare bankruptcy in the very near future, but that Nissan is now a French company, having just been acquired by that nation. I marvel at his insight, wondering how he knows this information before any business journalist of any American newspaper.

But that is only the beginning of his ESP talents. Pretty soon, my French relative, who has never been to San Francisco, who does not speak English and has only visited the USA twice, is pointing out the sites and telling me that the bay is actually the ocean, the ocean is the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge is not orange, and the Bay Bridge is not two but actually a dozen or so bridges.

I smile politely. I wonder if I am missing something in the translation. I attempt to counter some of these statements only to be told that I am misinformed. I point out that I live here and am an American. He brushes this off with a quick snort of sympathy for me and continues to show me how the landing path that their airplane took is the exact opposite of every plane that we can see landing at San Francisco International Airport. By this point, I am figuring that either the jet lag is much more serious than I had ever imagined or I have suddenly entered the twilight zone. I look into my rearview mirror to see if my mother-in-law has been infected with the same affliction. She is feigning sleep.

We arrive safely in the outrageously expensive parking lot and step out into the gorgeous weather of San Francisco on a sunny day. As I slowly burn to a crisp while we wander about, my in-laws look more and more healthily tanned. I wonder about the injustices of the world and buy chocolate to console myself. No, chocolate does not have tanning properties, but I hear that if you eat a couple pounds of it per day, it acts as a natural Prozac. That is good enough for me. I share my new-found medicine with my French parents, and we all happily walk back to the Wharf for lunch. A French waiter steps out of his restaurant and neatly snags the three of us for a very good meal at a seafood restaurant. A wave of relief rushes over me; I am no longer required to entertain in French as our jovial French waiter steps in to take the spotlight. The conversation turns to the natural French worship of food. My in-laws' eyes begin to sparkle as they talk about various oily shellfish that I never even knew existed.

"The sfleidlsfpckmf has a longer shell than a clam and a more spicy taste."

"I think they're all called clams in English," I say, trying to keep up with the direction of the conversation.

"Oh non, not at all. It is a completely different shellfish. You could not possibly mistake the two." I look at their plates thinking that all the shells look the same to me. But then again, I am the uncultured, shellfish-allergic American who never learned to appreciate eating live organisms. I like my food dead by the time it reaches my plate.

"In any case, the fish here is wonderful. They must import it from Europe." I nearly choke on my food when my father-in-law says this. Am I truly going crazy? Is everything I thought I knew about San Francisco just my imagination?

"I think the fish are from around here. This is a wharf, after all," I say, trying to recall everything touristy I have ever learned about Fisherman's Wharf.

"Non, I don't think so." Well, that's that. If my father-in-law doesn't think so, it is not so. I am sure he's a French philosopher of food living in the wrong century.

"Why don't we ask the waiter," I say, trying to hold onto my last shred of sanity.

I breathe a sigh of relief when the waiter affirms my convictions: their fish is from the west coast of the United States. My father-in-law shakes his head in surprise and informs the waiter that it is quite decent for American food. The waiter, being French himself, acknowledges the surprise and agrees with him.

So, after a day full of unusual revelations, we finally return home exhausted. I peak my head through the front door. My husband takes one look at my face and starts snickering.

"You knew, didn't you!" I state.

He just smiles at me and asks, "So, what did you learn today?"

Felisa S. Philippe is a previously unpublished non-fiction humorist who holds a degree in French Studies from Smith College. While writing and attempting to freelance articles about all the strange individuals whom she encounters, she is working on her first science-fiction novel. Married: to a Frenchman captured while studying in Paris, she lives in the Bay Area, a hearty 6,000 miles away from her unique French relatives.


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