You won’t know if you never ask. Part 1, Paris.

I hate being told no as much as anyone, and sometimes I’ve chosen to play it safe and haven’t bothered asking for something. But I’ve realized I regret not asking more than I lament being told no, and some good stories have come from the times I’ve been brave enough to ask. One of these times was ten years ago–this week!–when my boyfriend David and I were on vacation in Paris. It was Easter weekend. David and I had been dating about a year and half.

We took a red-eye flight from DC to Paris and arrived in the late morning. After a long taxi ride and a good nap and shower in the hotel, we headed out to dinner, stopping at the nearest ATM to withdraw Euros. The bank was already closed for the day, but with a machine right on the sidewalk, that was fine. David got cash first, then I swiped my card, entered my PIN and desired amount of Euros (300), and waited. The machine gave me 200 Euros. Then the receipt printed, indicating that the machine had given me all 300 Euros, and that the transaction was complete.
Well … !
Shit!
Right?
Obviously we’d have to come back the next morning and try to get the rest of my money. It felt like a long shot and I was already feeling self-conscious about it, but 100 Euros, then and now, is a lot of money. What was the worst they could do? Say no, right? But I also had this bizarre fear that they’d arrest me and throw me in a French prison like Jean Valjean. (I have weird fears like that.)

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a baguette each for David and me. This was the thinnest, daintiest baguette I’ve ever seen in my life, and it had about an inch’s worth of perfectly softened salted butter spread along the inside. It was easily the simplest meal we had that entire trip, and anything I write ten years later couldn’t do justice to the beauty and comfort of that perfectly fresh crusty bread and butter with piping hot café au lait for me and hot chocolate for David. The non-English-speaking waitress was also a delight. We spent our time with her shrugging and chuckling at our mutual incomprehension, even as we still managed to understand each other on a level that we knew counted for something. Encouraged by such a breakfast, and “armed” with my ATM card, the receipt from the previous evening’s transaction, and my passport, we were ready to face the bank.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” we asked.

“No,” they answered.

I knew only a little bit of French, and the situation wasn’t super easy to explain. But once English was ruled out, we knew that our only hope for communication lay in my multi-lingual abilities. My German in college was decent so I tried that. No dice. And I’d studied Portuguese in grad school.

“Pas de portugais.”

I should say that this entire time and despite our linguistic limitations, the folks at the bank seemed genuinely interested in helping. In my anxiety, I looked at David and said something to him in English that included a Spanish word or two, probably Dios mío.

Then I hear, “Espagnol? Oui. Un peu.”

So what’s French for “Duh!” No, it had not occurred to me to ask about Spanish. But there it was, one male employee who spoke very limited Spanish.

I explained what had happened to him as slowly and carefully as I could, and watched as he translated for his colleagues. A female colleague then got up and left the room with a large key ring. The keys to the vault? Do banks still have vaults? Anyway, I assumed she was in charge. While she was away, the rest of the employees kept talking amongst themselves in French. After enough time had passed, I grew nervous and said to David something along the lines of, “Either she can’t get the vault to open, or this is the part where they confiscate my passport, cut up my ATM card, and have us arrested for trying to rob the bank, you know, go all Interpol/Bourne Identity on our asses.”

A few minutes later, the woman with the keys reemerged. She was looking at a newly-printed receipt she had in one hand. In her other hand? My 100 Euros!  Honestly, for all the misgivings we’d had, it all seemed rather easy once it was over. Something in their system probably confirmed the truth of my story. We’d been so nervous, yet all we’d had to do was ask. To celebrate, I went out and bought this hat which I’ve never worn since.

Pont Neuf with new Parisian hat.
Know what else? After dinner at a tiny, ridiculously charming restaurant on Île Saint-Louis that night, David and I got engaged! Ah, Paris in the springtime. It was a very good trip.
 
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