a vintage postcard from the Paris Puces
a vintage postcard found in the Paris Puces

It was summertime and the learning was easy in the tiny classroom in the village-like Paris neighbourhood of Butte-aux-Cailles. Everything felt possible – not only conversing with my grouchy neighbourhood fromager, but also winning him over with some fluent repartee.

It was the final day of my French class, and at last the city would be my oyster.

Armed with my wit and my budding conversational skills – if I plugged my ears – my plan now was to get all Napoleonic and conquer my whole street with little purchases, one shop at a time. Soon this “Little Corporal” would become the local comedic big wheel, I told myself – or at least I would be during the course of my petits achats.

Our formal lessons were over, and our instructor had dropped her usual professional aloofness. It was like she was seeing us as people instead of students for the first time.

Votre bague est très magnifique!” she exclaimed, pitching me out of my daydream by pointing towards my ring with her telescopic wooden stick. She took my hand to study the inscription wrapped around the band of gold.

“Ah, it’s in French! And why not? You’re practically a  native speaker now!” she said, with a wink. “Mademoiselle Brack, would you dare to translate it for us, please?”

Oui, Madame!” I piped, with the confidence of a United Nations interpreter. After clearing my throat, I charged ahead.

“It’s from my American beau. He saw the words ‘Pensez Aux Suites’ on an old billboard in Abbesses,” I told her, “and translated it online himself. The internet said it means ‘think of what’s coming.’ Slipping it on my finger, he talked about the wonderful possibilities the future held. ‘The best is yet to come!’ he said.”

The class applauded. I felt like I’d just won a competition on TV.

Oh, là là,” my instructor said, furrowing her brow, then sighing.

“Sadly, no, Mademoiselle Brack. Monsieur Google does not know everything. This is not quite what your ‘Pensez Aux Suites’ means.” She marched to the front of the room with her stick still in hand.

Donc! Voici! During the war, Pensez Aux Suites was the motto on anti-disease posters and billboards to tell soldiers to stay away from prostitutes. It means ‘Think of the consequences.’ Resist temptation! Voilà! Understand?”

The class, which had applauded me just moments before, now erupted in laughter. I bit my lip in horror.

I suppose it could have been worse. My beau could have followed suit with Napoleon by jinxing the whole affair with an over-confident Tweet-like message to the gods. They say Napoleon inscribed his wife Josephine’s wedding medallion with “To Destiny!” We all know how that ended. Tempting fate is never a smart move in my book, even with a “crossed fingers” hashtag.

But then again, maybe he was more aware of the whole drama unfolding around him than one might be inclined to think. Recently, I read a stash of his love letters to Josephine.

In one missive, he had written to her, “Ah! I pray! Let me see some of your faults; be less beautiful, less gracious, less tender, and especially, less kind; above all never be jealous, never weep; your tears madden me, fire my blood… Come and join me, so that, at least before dying, we could say, ‘We were happy for so many days!’”

From France Today magazine

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