Urban Volcano

Fiction by Börkur Sigurbjörnsson

I sat down at a nice looking café to have a breakfast. Tomorrow I was to give a conference presentation about graph theory but today I was going to ramble about the streets of Paris and get to know what the city had to offer. I did not have any destinations planned. I was simply going to go on a random walk along the city’s street network and see where my feet would bring me. I had decided to try to not behave like a tourist. I was going to try to blend seamlessly into the crowd as if I were a local.

Oui — Illustration by Börkur Sigurbjörnsson
Illustration by Börkur Sigurbjörnsson

A waiter came to my table and asked what he could offer me. I pronounced the sentence I had repeated constantly in my mind since opening my eyes this morning.

“Croissant et café au lait,” I said as confident I possibly could. Nevertheless the sentence did not sound quite as good when I said it out loud as it had done in my mind all morning. The intonation was different. Stiffer. Out loud, the words flowed like a pile of rocks falling off the back of a truck in pouring rain, but not like the calm brook on a sunny day like I had imagined all morning.

The waiter dutifully wrote down my order on a piece of paper, before pouring over me a river of french words whose meaning I was completely clueless about. Judging by the tone of his voice I could imagine it had been a question. Now I had to stay strong and don’t admit defeat. I could not lose the cool.

“Oui,” I replied without hesitating, in the hope that the question could be answered with a yes or a no.

The waiter nodded, smiled and walked over to the kitchen. I had to admit to myself that it could be a challenge to try to behave like a local without knowing hardly any french. Was I perhaps getting myself into trouble? What could it possibly have been that I had said yes to? It could hardly be anything serious since the waiter took my answer as if it had been quite expected.

I observed the people in the street and tried to find something in their conduct that I could imitate in order to fool people into thinking I was a local. A quick observation revealed two aspects that were noteworthy about the Parisians. They smoke cigarettes and walk across the street against a red traffic light. I decided to pass up on the smoking but I was determined not to wait on a red light if the traffic allowed me to cross.

The waiter came back and put a cup of milky coffee and a croissant on the table in front of me. The breakfast looked exactly as I had imagined it. My yes to the waiter’s question did not seem to have hurt—whatever it had been I had said yes to. I decided not to dwell on that thought any longer. I would just have to go through the rest of my life without ever knowing what the waiter had asked.