It must be said that it was a rocky start as my attempts to speak French began with a faux pas.
I arrived in Paris, breezed through customs, got my bag, navigated the taxi line and after the required salutations said, Tu prends les credits carte? Which means “Do you take credit cards? except that I used the informal you, as though we were old chums, which is considered rude, and just a little disrespectful, thus solidifying the stereotype of the “ugly American.” My apologies to my fellow Americans out there.
There was a silent gasp. I swear I heard it. And then, being the elegant man that he undoubtedly was, he politely responded, using the formal you, with something like, Bien sûr, mais si vous avez en espèces, ce serait apprécié. Which means: Of course, but if you have cash, that would be appreciated. Realizing my mistake, I said, Je suis désolé, mon français est terrible, mais je fais de mon mieux. Meaning, I’m sorry, my French is terrible, but I do my best. I’m not sure that softened the blow, but I couldn’t think of what else to say. The remainder of the long cab ride to my hotel was spent in silence.
Needless to say, I paid with Euros.
Still, not to be deterred, I attempted to check in speaking French, but before I could get past the initial, bonjour, j’ai une réservation… he responded in English.
Now it must be noted that I’ve been practicing my French dutifully every single day for the past two years in anticipation of this trip and was really hoping to practice and maybe even have a conversation, albeit a rudimentary one.
However things went off the rails when the nice woman from housekeeping came to ask if I would like her to return with a vacuum cleaner because of some dirt that had fallen while the guy was trying to fix one of the black out blinds that wasn’t descending properly. Now I know the word for housekeeper, femme de ménage, but I have never heard the word for vacuum cleaner.so I finally said, Pardon, je ne sais pas ce ça – Pardon me, I don’t know what this is, Who could blame her when she looked around in confusion. What I meant to say was, I’m sorry I don’t understand what that means, but I was getting tired and couldn’t think clearly. She then apologized and continued in perfect English.
Even when I sat down to have un cafe at a little Parisian restaurant on the Seine, and I successfully ordered in French and even was able to have a two sentence back and forth, feeling flush with my success I was utterly deflated when the waiter began replying in English. Still, I insisted, somewhat comically to continue in my very bad French, while he replied in English and here’s the thing – just about everyone in Paris speaks English much better than I speak French. Seriously small children have a leg up on me. Though it must be noted, I did not attempt to carry on a conversation with any small children, all parents will be relieved to know that.
I did manage to take the metro, I was extremely pleased with myself, and even figured out how to transfer and purchase a ticket using one of the many machines they have. But when I tried to insert the ticket into the machine, all bets were off. A nice young man finally came to my assistance to tell me that, yes, you put the ticket into the slot and it spits it out just beyond. All was well.
There were countless instances when I couldn’t think quickly enough to respond in French to various things, such as when a group of young men passed me as I was walking along the Seine. One young man said, Bonjour! and then followed that up with, Tu es très jolie! You are very pretty. What I wanted to say was, Merci, mais je pourrais être ta mère, Thank you, but I could be your mother, but instead I just kept walking, which was probably just as well. Oh please, I qualify for senior citizen discounts!
Still, tomorrow is another day and who knows what lively conversations I may attempt?
For those of you who’d like to see some video and photos of my first day, you can watch this short YouTube video.