THIS IS A STORY told by the father of a high-school friend of mine (Jim and Pete and Julia will recall this), and repeated by his children — oft with great glee in the telling. The man was a rifle-toter in WWII, if I’m not mistaken. The story is putatively set in a small suburban French cafe, sometime in WWI, however, so one is forced to wonder about its provenance. I have, in the grandest literary tradition, embellished it somewhat.
During the latter days of the war, I was on leave from the front, and happened to be sitting with one of my squadmates in a tiny French sidewalk cafe in Armentieres, when I was overheard by a trio of elderly Frenchmen at the next table, arguing in English with my squaddies over the meaning of a French phrase. The old gentlemen undertook to advise us, but had a violent disagreement among themselves over the deeper meaning of the saying.
The argument carried on for, perhaps, a quarter of an hour until one of the three Frenchmen slapped his hand down on the table around which they sat, and said, “Enough! I will tell you zee true meaning of these words, savoire fair.
He turned in his seat to bring all five of us — the three Frenchmen and the two Yankee doughboys — within his field of vision and, in passable, albeit heavily-accented English, commenced firing.
“Peecture a small pied a terre in Paree. A young-ish couple live zair, a man, Pierre, and a wooman, Marie. Eh? One day, Pierre comes ‘ome early from zee work, to find zee door ees lock-ed. He knocks. ‘Marie?’ ‘ee calls out to ‘er. No answer. ‘ee find zee keey undair the cobblestone in zee dooryard and unlock zee door. Eento zee entry hall: ‘Marie!? Oh, Marie, my leetle bumblebee!’
“Un’ zair ees no answer.
“Eento zee house sojourns Pierre. Dans zee parlour: no Marie. Dans zee Keetchen: no Marie. Et le jardin: no Marie. Puzzled an’ scratching zee haid, ‘ee turn back into zee ‘ouse, zenn bounds ‘ee OOP zee stairs. ‘Oh, Marie!’ ‘ee calls for her in zee hall. Her name is on his lips as his ‘and is on zee doorknob of zee bedroom door. ‘Oh, Marie?’ ‘ee call, as he opens zee door.”
At this point, the first Frenchman pauses and looks significantly at his two interlocutors and then at us Yanks.
“’Ee open zee door only to find… Marie! In bed! In zee arms of Zee Ozair Man!
“An’ he say, ‘Oh. Pardonnez moi!’ an’ cloze zee door.
“Zat,” the first Frenchman says, “is savoire faire.”
We two Yanks thought that was a fair description of a — of a uniquely, shall we say, Gallic outlook on la vie. But the other two Frenchmen did not agree.
“Oh! Non, non, non,” asserted the second Frenchman. “You ‘ave eet all wrong! I weell tell to you what means zees savoire faire. Same pied a terre in Paree. Same couple. Same man, Pierre, come ‘ome early from zee work zee door lock-ed only to find. Find zee key, open zee door. Call out: ‘Marie! Oh, Marie, my leetle pet!’ Et no Marie. Not in zee ‘allway; not in zee parlour, or zee keetchen, or le jardin. Up zee stair, call out in zee ‘allway; ‘and on zee doorknob, ‘er name on ‘ees leeps: ‘Oh, Marie!’ as he opens zee door. Same Marie, same bed, Same Ozair Man.
“An’ Pierre, zee gentleman parfait, ‘ee say, ‘Oh! Pardonnez moi! Continnez vous!’ an’ ‘ee close zee door.
“ZAT, mon freres, is le savoire faire.”
Well, we Yanks are both impressed at this second, seemingly superior description, and find a distinctly Franco je ne sais quoi in the improvement of the definition. But it sets the other two Frenchmen back only a moment, whereupon the third Frenchman stamps his foot and loudly asserts: “Non, non, non, non! You steel ‘ave eet all wrong.
“Peecture it now: same pied a terre. Same couple. Pierre, ‘omeward bound ‘ee come to find no Marie, zee light of his life, his very bootsterfly of love. Unlock zee front door as you say. Into zee parlour, zee keetchen, le jardin. Eh? Et up zee stair, ‘ee calls in zee hallway. Marie’s name is on ‘ees leeps as ‘ee open zee door. ‘Oh, Marie, my leetle pet!’ An’ ‘ee open zee door and find zee same Marie een zee same bed in zee same arms of Zis Same Ozair Man!
“An’ he say, as you say: ‘Oh! Pardonnez moi! Continnez vous!’ an’ cloze zee door…”
There is a gravid pause, and then the third Frenchman sits back and says:
“An’ eef Zee Ozair Man CAN continnez vous…” he slaps the table. “ZAT, mes amis, zat ees savoire faire!”