Day 216: Nerd Out.

Illustration by Garance Doré

Back when I was learning French in New York, I subscribed to the French cable channel TV 5 Monde for complete immersion into what would become the biggest challenge of my late twenties. I thought that I'd study my ass off and after a year I'd be fluent and never look back - how cute. I failed to realize that learning another language is a process of applying layers upon layers where I'd constantly be learning new expressions, building vocabulary and mastering that sneaky subjonctif that seems to creep up during the least opportune moments. I can't tell you how many times during fights with MF where I stood corrected because I forgot to use this annoying tense.

While the subjonctif continues to torture me, my vocabulary and math skills developed fairly quickly thanks to TV 5 Monde introducing me to my favorite television game show this side of the Atlantic: Des chiffres et des lettres. Coming home early today, I was able to catch the last 15 minutes of the show that represents the beginning of my French-speaking life. Every time I watch it, I can't help but chuckle, remembering my first year here in France. 

Picture it. Paris. 2009. An enthusiastic American girl.

It was a cool, overcast spring day and with the help of my pertinent roommate Charles-Henri, I had the opportunity to go to a taping of one of France's oldest or depending on who you ask France's nerdiest game show that apparently "no one watches". Charles made a call to the phone number provided on the website and within a week we had an e-mail confirming my place in the live studio audience. After months of watching this show on my couch in Brooklyn, I was going to see it live, before my eyes! It was the highlight of my arrival in Paris. 

Per the website, the taping was to take place in St. Cloud which was simple enough because I was living in the 15th at the time making it less than a 30-minute metro ride away - or so I thought. I arrived at St. Cloud where my instructions after the metro, were to take a bus for four stops and walk on the service road that ran alongside the auto-route for 15 minutes. I remember thinking that something didn't seem right as my heels were digging into the dirt but maybe walking along freeways was how "it" was done in France, so I just went with it.

I finally arrived at the address that Charles had written down on a piece of paper and didn't see a studio in sight, just an office building. I walked in to find a welcome desk - and I use the word "welcome" loosely - where I found a receptionist in a desolate lobby taking a bite into a sandwich. "Bonjourrrrrr!" I said gleefully with my thick American accent. The receptionist looked back at me and chewed. Ok. "I want to make to see the shooting of Des chiffres et des lettres, please." I desperately tried to communicate with my poor French. The receptionist looked at me, rolled her eyes and swiveled her chair around with her back facing me. "Excusez-moi?" I insisted while obnoxiously patting the counter. "I am here inside of this establishment to watch shootings of Des chiffres et des lettres, please." No response. After my long trek where I took a metro and then a bus into what I believed was the suburbs, walked on a freeway and it was starting to rain, I wasn't going to give up that easily. I'm a New Yorker for pete's sake! After my third attempt, and this time less cheerful, she finally turned around, looked at me and said, "It's not here." No further information - it was just not there. Con-nasse.

I walked outside, hoping to get some answers somehow but just found myself standing clueless in the rain because there was not much else in sight. Discouraged, I called Charles and asked him to confirm the address on the website and told him about the little unhelpful witch who just told me that I was in the wrong place. "Ah, mince, ok go back to the receptionist and pass the phone to her so I can talk." Charles instructed me. "I don't want to, she was mean," I whined. "Do you want to see Laurent Romejko or what!?" he barked with a chuckle. He knew that I had a little crush on the nerdy host Laurent which was the driving factor of going to the taping, so I sheepishly walked back into the office where you can imagine the receptionist being far from excited to see me again. 

I held my phone out, motioning for her to please take it where she nodded her head no and adamantly refused to take the damn phone. After practically forcing her to take it as she saw that my eyes were starting to water out of frustration, I heard her tell Charles that she already told me that the studio wasn't there and that I didn't understand her. She handed the phone back to me. So not only was she a bitch, but she was a liar too because I did in fact understand and she knew that - I just didn't like her answer.

"Stupid French girl!" Charles said after the phone was handed back to me. "Ok, go outside and look for a security booth. She said that perhaps the guard can help us," Charles directed me, "Just give him the phone and I will get more information." I went out and found the booth, said hello to the guard before shoving my phone in his face. Charles and the guard had what appeared to be a lovely conversation before the guard handed the phone back to me and exited his booth.

"He's leaving, Charles! What did he say? What's going on? Charles!!" I howled into the phone. "Do you see a camion de pompiers in front of you?" Charles asked with the patience of a saint. Camion de pompiers?  What was this word again?  Ah, yes a firetruck. "Why yes Charles, I do see a firetruck. Why do you ask?" I asked while noticing three firemen and the guard waving at me. "Because the studio is not in St. Cloud anymore, it's in St. Ouen and they happen to be heading that way so you're going to get a ride with them! Ok? A tout!"  Dial tone. Wait, what?! Charles! I'm going in a firetruck with firemen?! And then it hit me, I'm going in a firetruck with firemen! Well, Bonjour la France! 

Holding my little purse with both hands in front of me, I shyly walked over to the firetruck and said hi where they motioned for me to climb in the back where they strapped me in for what turned out to be an hour long ride because of the traffic. This had to have been illegal but I didn't care because I was in a firetruck on my way to see Des chiffres et des lettres! 

My French was hellish at the time therefore communicating with these sweater clad heroes was close to impossible which created a lot of of awkward silences where they just looked at me like a science project. Who was this little American trying to go to a taping of Des Chiffres et des lettres

We arrived at the real studio in St. Ouen where the firemen escorted me in and I took my seat among the show's target audience; senior citizens. After watching four tapings with the camera panning embarrassing close-ups of my face where I would try to look like I was seriously figuring out the puzzle but ended up just looking constipated, I heard one of the studio managers call my name. Why were they calling my name? I was certainly in no position to respond confidently over a crowd of people, so I avoided eye contact and kept my eyes glued to my French gossip magazine that I also couldn't understand. The calling of my name lasted for ten painful minutes where I heard the word participant followed by the spelling of my name. These people were really looking for me and I was terrified.

To this day, I don't know why they were calling my name but my theory is that Charles called the wrong phone number and added me on the list as a contestant. I would have been on Le Zapping forever as the laughing stock of France but my French friends seem to think that it would be impossible and that there has to be some sort of quiz that I'd have to take in order to be a contestant. This is coming from the same people who haven't seen the show in 20 years, so I would hardly consider them to be authorities on the show's rules and operations. I sometimes regret staying mute because after all these years, I still wonder what they wanted and if they would have put a foreigner with shaky French language skills on their show. If anything, their ratings would have certainly gone up that week.

While I love the life of normalcy that I worked hard to achieve here in Paris, I sometimes miss my early days where I was naive, curious and open-minded making everyday a new adventure and Paris my own little playground of the unknown.


  1. Ha, that's awesome! I always used to joke that going on "Tournez manege" would be the ultimate France experience. I love that show! I don't have a TV anymore, but used to be all about the game shows because they're easy to understand and if you zone out for 5 minutes you haven't lost the whole plot.

  2. Oh my heavens! I am cringing for you! What a day that must have been. Horrible and bizarre, but now it's an awesome memory and a great story to tell.
    And if they had called my name, I have no idea what I would have done. No idea.

  3. Stories like that is why I love my naive, terrible French speaking, newcomer status! And is that you wedged between 2 senior citizens in the YouTube video? Haha, you weren't kidding about their target audience.

  4. You got to ride with the pompiers?! : ) I love the mental image of you clutching your little bag sitting in between the firemen.

    Happy to say that I'm still bumbling around feeling stupid much of the time while Paris remains a "playground of the unknown". How poetic!

  5. @Gwan - Do it!!! Going to a French game show really is the ultimate French experience! I felt so ridiculous and I love telling my French friends that I went to a taping of this show. They look at me like I'm insane...they may be right.

    @Sara - I was sweating bullets when they called my name! I refused to make any eye contact and just wanted them to go away. Now, I really wish I had just come forward because I'll never truly know why they were calling me. Dommage...

    @Chickster - Yeah! Enjoy your newbie status! This is a special time for you where everything seems so new and exciting.

    @MK - Yes I did!! It was my favorite experience here in Paris!! The firemen definitely got a kick out of you can imagine.

  6. Des chiffres et des lettres?! Coooooooooome oooooooooooooooon! LOL!:) OK, Laurent Romejko is rather cute;) Bet you love watching the weather forecast too;) And granted, it's a few notches above Les Zamours!;) (But what ISN'T?;))

  7. This made my evening of packing a lot better. Riding with sexy(?) French firemen? Going to see des Chiffres et des lettres? If I was going to pick a TV show, I'd like to go on Un diner presque parfait and make them eat English food! :)

  8. @Duchess - LOLOLOLOL! I LOVE this damn show! It's like the 15th, it provides some kind of comfort for me. All of the boyfriends that i have had here get super freaked out when I say that I'm attracted to Romejko because they fear that they are some kind of nerd too! And yes, I enjoy watching his accurate weather forecast as well. Les Zamours? Je ne le connais pas....hmmm, must. check. out.

    @Victoria - That's another goody! I once saw an episode where the girl made an "American" dinner for everyone and it was really embarrassing! She burnt the apple pie, her sliders looked like poop and she got everyone hammered on Cosmos. LOL!

  9. BAHAHA oh my gosh I'm so jealous!! Also, you are not alone in watching des chiffres et des lettres.
    I'm definitely going to try to go see a taping of a French tv show now. :)
    Joyeuses fêtes!!!!

  10. This story is so cute! I too remember the fun I had when first living in Paris when every day was a little bit crazy! Fantastic.

  11. @Sequin - Thanks!! I had a lot of fun watching the show even if I was super nervous!

  12. hilarious post(top 5)! wow did this really happen?

    Now, check out Gaillard's brillant intervention: