Skip to content

“Où est la clé?” A Harlem Story

There was that time I was hopelessly lost in Bangkok. Or all of the times in Indonesia, so many in fact that I won’t even bother linking or compiling a list. Five years later I still remember the charming older French couple that went out of their way to drive me and a friend to the Matisse Museum in the south of France (really that guidebook map was not drawn to scale!). Travel always comes with challenges and I’ve been thankful for all of the random acts of kindness from strangers that have come my way. I never thought that on my stoop in Harlem I would have the chance to repay some of those acts. It was a warm Sunday afternoon in September. I was just settling into life in New York City — a life that is full of surprises and parades (many of the photos below are from the African American Day parade that happened in my neighborhood). As I walked up my block I saw an older couple with several suitcases standing on my stoop.

Lead It

I was confused. Maybe someone else in the building had grandparents visiting? As I walked up the steps and then punched in the building code, the man and woman said, “Bonjour.” I was taken aback and said, “Bonjour.” The couple both smiled and before I knew it I had answered that “oui” I speak French (a bit rusty, it’s been five years since I lived in Paris). Well, in a very French manner, the couple had made a vacation rental reservation in my building over half a year before and since they spoke no English (they were from a small coastal southern town), they never bothered to email and confirm before arriving. And now, there was no key for them.


They handed me all of their paperwork and I became alarmed. The rental was my unit number. My mind started racing. Was this a scam? Had I been scammed with my lease? I had dealt with enough sleazy brokers during my apartment search that I wouldn’t put anything past them. On a side note, searching for an apartment in NYC is a horrid experience that I don’t wish on anyone. If a broker uses the phrase “just imagine it clean” do yourself a favor and turn around immediately. I saw one apartment in Harlem that had floor to ceiling junk. The prior resident had just been evicted and his/her food was still on the kitchen table. I have a vivid imagination, but there are limits.

Old School

I started calling all of the phone numbers on the reservation rental papers. But of course, it was a Sunday. Meanwhile my apartment-mate returned home and brought down some orange juice to the French couple, who then wanted to know “where she was really from” after I had told them America — ah yes, the not so casual French racism peaking through. We sat on my stoop together while I made phone calls and the woman showed me their French guidebook while her husband hand rolled cigarettes. Two hours later after numerous phone calls, I got to meet the Italian speaking owner of my building. She informed me they had cancelled all vacation rentals and converted the whole building into full-time rentals. Apparently emails written in English had been sent.



Luckily there was one empty unit in my building which she quickly made up for the couple while I tried to play with her hysterically crying son. I was exhausted after over two hours speaking non-stop, improperly conjugated French. The couple had another older French couple joining them that evening. The husband in that couple speaks Italian so they said they would sort everything out in Italian with my landlord the next day. And people say Americans don’t speak other languages!

Shake, Shake

On Thursday night there was a knock at my door. Again I was taken back by the rapid fire “bonjours.” The couples were so grateful for my help they wanted to have me over the next night for aperitifs. For another hour I spoke French and answered questions about America. It was the first trip for both couples to America and to New York. It was interesting to hear their takes on America. They liked NYC and thought people were pretty friendly and helpful. As everyone always is, they too were shocked by the high costs of private education in America and we spoke about this for sometime. I knew my French wasn’t too bad because I made them all laugh when I explained how this was one of the few times in life knowing French had been useful to me since I had grown up in California and not studied Spanish. After a few beers, I bid them adieu and left a business card in case they had any troubles leaving the next day.

Baptist Church

A few days ago, I received an email. Again, I was surprised to find myself switching into reading in French. One of the couples wanted to wish me a Happy New Year. They said they hadn’t forgotten me and they had seen the photos of the cold weather in NYC and hoped I was well. The email made me smile. It’s not that big of world sometimes.

And here are some photos of warmer days during the fall in Central Park:

Some Trumpet



Colors and Water


Burning Orange

Afternoon Light


Sitting II

Fountain Dance

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. chrestellatan #

    Interesting. and wonderful photos!

    January 10, 2014
    • Thanks, Stella! I have spoken a little Indonesian since I moved to NYC too.

      January 10, 2014
  2. People say you reap what you sow. But in your case I guess it’s: you reap, you sow, then one day in the future you’ll reap more unexpected kindness from strangers. :)

    January 10, 2014
    • I like that, Bama! And I certainly hope it’s true.

      January 11, 2014
  3. You certainly notched up a few Brownie points there, Lydia. Good for you! I bet they were so grateful, can you imagine the nightmare they would have had if you hadn’t been there to help them?! Lovely photographs. Happy 2014 to you! Lottie xx

    January 10, 2014
    • Thank you, Lottie. They did call me an “ange” — angel, and I can’t say that happens everyday :)

      January 11, 2014
  4. Merci beacoup for your lovely story! My most memorable multilingual experience was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada! I was there for a conference but stayed with relatives and caught the bus to the campus… the bus driver had a wide smile, jovial manner and a comment or two or three for just about everyone getting on and off the bus… by the time it he was on to the 5th language… I simply had to ask his story.

    Was a refugee from Africa and picked up languages in his many years going from there to South and South East Asia, several countries in first Eastern then Western Europe and eventually Canada. Shared it brought him joy to chat and tease his passengers, keeping his linguistic skills sharp and enjoying a joke or more. Those who knew him clearly enjoyed the banter. Those that didn’t were taken aback initially – not expecting an African Canadian would speak Polish or Bengali.

    Everyone left with a smile and their day was a bit brighter. Language is an amazing connection… anywhere in the world.

    January 10, 2014
    • What a wonderful story! I too would be taken aback by such a linguistically talented bus driver. I wish languages came a bit easier.

      January 11, 2014
  5. Thanks for sharing that heart-warming story. Beautiful fall photos too. Have a great weekend!

    January 10, 2014
  6. .. ah j’ai oubliee.., si tu veux, tu peux me repondre en francais aussi – if you want more practice!! ;)

    January 10, 2014
    • Merci pour vos commentaires. J’adore l’automne à New York avec toutes les couleurs — my favorite season so far, but spring may change that!

      January 11, 2014

What do you think? Leave a reply, comment or witty remark:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: