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Pommes de terre douce, s'il vous plaît

by Abbe Spokane

While studying in Paris, my friends and I decided to try to prepare a "traditional" Thanksgiving dinner. My assignment was to bring yams.

There'd be twenty of us, so I'd need quite a few yams. I set out without a worry in the world. I had not done any linguistic preparation for this outing but I was completely relaxed. I was expecting to walk up to a produce stall at the market, find the yams, point and ask for ten, hand over my francs, and head home to start baking.

No big deal except I didn't see any yams. I did see perfect pyramids of baking potatoes, russet potatoes, red potatoes, new potatoes, even blue potatoes, something called "creamy potatoes," but not a single yam. Well, now what? I was going to have to engage the produce guy in conversation. This was fine, I thought. My French was respectable.

I tell the produce guy that I need some 'pommes de terre douce.' He looks mildly shocked and replies, "Potato of the sweet earth? What's that?"

Flustered, I try to explain. "Uh, it's like a potato, but it's an orange. I mean, the color is orange." Anxious to get rid of me, he says, "I'm sorry, Miss. I don't have anything like that." I walk away as fast as my double-wide-ugly-American-nun shoes will take me without breaking into an uncivilized run back out to the street, where I start to cry as soon as the cold air hits my burning corneas. Now what?

The scene at two more produce stands is much the same--not a yam in sight, and no one seems to know what I'm talking about. I am a woman on the edge, all over some tubers. I decide not to panic and to act rationally. I sit down in the nearest bistro and order a cafe creme. I pay for my coffee and head out the door.

As I round the corner, I see a bookstore that I'm pretty sure wasn't there twenty minutes earlier. I step inside and I make a beeline for the reference section and grab the biggest French/English dictionary I can find. Sweet bread, sweet corn, sweet tooth, sweet talk, sweet success, sweet POTATO! They do exist--patate douce. What's the difference between pomme de terre and patate? How was I supposed to know? I say it over and over as I reshelve the dictionary and look for the culinary section. I find what looks like a picture encyclopedia of foods and flip through until I find "patate douce."

Well, this explains everything. Staring me in the face is a glossy, full color glamour shot and cross-section of the patate douce. It is decidedly not orange but it rather looks like your average spud. No wonder all those produce guys blew me off. Armed with my new vocabulary word, I trace my steps back to the last produce stand. I ask for sweet potatoes correctly this time and am not met with a blank stare. When asked how much I want, I say, "10."

I'm still reveling in my linguistic triumph when the produce guy tells me, "That's 359 francs, Miss." Quoi?!? That's more than 50 dollars--for yams? I tell myself, "Pay the man and let's just go home."

He must have seen the distressed look on my face because he adds, "They're 35 francs per kilo--imported from Africa." He hands me the bags.

As I am trudging home, it suddenly hits me. Hold on! 359 francs, 35 francs a kilo. I know what's happened. I'm carrying ten kilos of patates douces, which looks to be about 25 medium-sized yams and explains completely why I got such friendly service. Too late now. I'm just not up for trying to return half my purchase.

Sometime during the long walk home, the handles of both bags break, and by the time I round the corner next to the apartment, I'm hugging all 10 kilos as if I'm carrying triplets. My pockets and the hood of my coat are stuffed with the yams that slipped out of their bags along the way. I must look absolutely ridiculous--I can forget about "blending" into the Parisian scene.

I pause to get my keys out from underneath several potatoes, and in that split second, something changes. My arms relax and I lean my head back and do a Mary Tyler Moore-style twirl in the street. I'm living in Paris. Paris! I'm not a tourist who comes to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower, eat at McDo, and shop in the American store. I live here. I read the newspaper on my way to school and use French deodorant and meet my friends for falafel on Sundays and go to the movies alone and pick up visitors at the Gare du Nord and go jogging down the Champs Elysees and I buy yams from the produce guy. Ten kilos of yams, white ones imported from Africa.

© 2009 Abbe Spokane, re-published with permission from Culture Shocks. It's a great site with lots of cross-cultural stories!

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