The first problem was opening the apartment door. I forgot that in France, the first floor of a building is called le rez-de-chausser, and that which we in the US call the second floor is actually le premier étage.
So I spent fifteen minutes trying to open some terrified French stranger's door. I was taking a break, exasperated, when I first heard the brief, timid shuffling coming from inside. I froze, then they froze. They had been frozen the whole time, perhaps only moving to grab the nearest ad-hoc weapon (an umbrella? a breadknife? a book of Sartre?) In the din of silence, my error came to me. I pulled the key out of the scratched up, ill-fitting lock and marched shamefully up to the next floor, where I spend yet another fifteen minutes trying to open my own door. The trick, eventually discovered, is first to unlock it by turning the key clockwise until it clicks. To open it then requires pushing in the key, turning it thirty degrees more, and pushing on the door itself, all at the same time.
My troubles began anew the next morning when I attempted to exit the building for a petit-déjeuner français and found I could not open the front door, either. The front door. I couldn't open it. From inside.
The funny thing about speaking only a bit of a foreign language is that at any given time—whether reading a menu, eavesdropping on locals, or listening to a metro agent try to explain why your metro card is empty even though you just spend €65 for a monthly pass at the ticket machine—you're really only catching every fourth or fifth word, forced to weave them together with either blind hope or blind confidence in your powers of inductive reasoning, brushing off the unintelligible bits as mere filler. Understanding comes to resemble a sad afghan riddled with dropped stitches.
Statistically then, the fewer the number of words you encounter, the more important it is to understand a greater percentage of them.
That is why, when faced with a door that refuses to open, next to which is a button, and on which is a sign that says SONNEZ PUIS TIREZ, it's probably best to stop ramming the door repeatedly, take a step back, and really unravel the mystery behind these Romantic hieroglyphs, because you'll find that every single one of them counts:
And just like that, I'm off.