I am sometimes lost, often mute, and usually ignorant, and I’ve just got to get used to it.
I’m an American in France. An American who doesn’t speak French.
This is the perfect opportunity to look stupid in all sorts of neat places, from the Riviera to the Notre Dame Cathedral to the Palace of Versailles, at the train station, a restaurant, a hotel, or just plain walking down the street.
“You are an idiot. You are a worthless piece of decaying matter and your mother wears support hose.”
Someone yells this at you while you are walking down the street in Paris. Not knowing French, you smile and walk away.
“Pardon me, sir,” comes the sound of a woman’s voice, soft and tender as you pass her on the sidewalk. “I’m not usually this forward with men I don’t know, but I couldn’t help being attracted to your rugged good looks and confident demeanor. Excuse me for being so bold, but how about an intimate candlelight dinner for two at my place tonight?”
Granted, this sounds very sexy. (In fact, anything spoken in French sounds romantic, whether it’s your roommate yelling at you to take out the garbage or a newscaster reading off the latest stock market quotations.) It sounds good, yes, but you don’t understand a single syllable of it. So you do what you can.
You smile and walk away.
Ah, to be an ignorant American in France.
Actually – and I think it has something to do with the basic Homo sapiens survival instinct – you will begin to pick up on the French way of speaking, usually just about the same time your plane is boarding for the trip back home. To avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation, I recommend the Starling at Large Ignorant American’s 5-Phrase French Language Survival Guide, complete with phonetic pronunciation, French word spelling and what it all means (this would probably work in Quebec too).
1. WEE (oui): I’ll bet you already know this one. Yes, it means yes. The French use it a lot. When they get real excited, they say “Ah, oui!” Sort of like saying “Oh yeah!” In America.
2. Greetings: BONE-ZHOOR (bonjour) is an all-purpose salutation. Literally, it means “good day” and the French use it to say hello or sometimes goodbye. The word is also written at the top of cereal boxes in the local supermarkets, in which case I suppose it means “good morning” or maybe “now with 150% of the recommended daily allowance of refined sugar!”
Sometime after the sun goes down (I still haven’t figured out when exactly), they switch from bonjour to bonsoir (BONE-SWAH). And to say goodbye, say AW-REV-WAH (au revoir), which actually means “until seeing again.” Say it real fast and slur the syllables if you want them to think you’re not an ignorant American.
3. OK, this one’s important. OO-AY (ou est) followed by any noun, while not exactly great French grammar, will still enable you to ask where anything is. Examples: “Ou est le sucre?” (Where’s the sugar?). “Ou est l’toilette?” (Where’s the bathroom?) Like I said, important.
4. MARE-SEE (merci): People here must think I’m strange because this is about the only word a lot of them ever hear me say. That’s because I let my travel companion (who took French class in college) handle the difficult actual conversation and when we leave I say, “Merci.” It means “thank you,” and I figure you can’t say it enough. It also shows I am fluent in at least one French word.
5. Our final phrase and perhaps the most important one an ignorant American could ever know: ZHAY-NUH-PAR-PAH-FRAHN-SAY (Je ne parle pas francais). If you’re in a tense situation, whip this sentence out, loudly, and everything will be all right, or if not, at least you tried.
It means “I do not speak French” and will usually halt all language demands being made upon you. At least this worked for me one day when I was oh-so-rudely (and unwittingly) sitting in an elderly couple’s reserved seat on the train from Orleans to Collioure.
OK, I admit this may not be much, but it has helped one ignorant American survive for almost a month in this strange land – me.
If you do start to feel overwhelmed, however, don’t despair. You may end up as lucky as I was one day when a supermarket clerk, noting my painfully bewildered look at the cash register, said to me in a thickly accented but perfectly understandable English:
“Do you speak English?”
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wrote this story after returning from a two-month-long bike trip to Europe in 1986. It was first published in a slightly longer form in LAX magazine in May 1986. I edited out the dead weight and clunkier parts for your reading enjoyment. -Starling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in a small Wisconsin blue-collar town, Mike Starling ditched the assembly line for a long, sometimes circuitous career working with words, sound and images. His original music is heard on numerous recordings and soundtracks, and his stories and photos have been featured in books, films, mags and other media. Among his other interesting career moves, he has edited a beer magazine, played bass in a reggae band and sold potato chips door-to-door. Inspired by the life-altering events of 2020, he launched a year-long web-based project called I Remember Travel in January 2021.
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I REMEMBER TRAVEL
Journeys in sight and sound by Mike Starling
All text, images and music in the I Remember Travel weblog ©Mike Starling unless otherwise noted. Music published by Bean Hoy Music (BMI). All rights reserved.