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Read any travel guide on visiting Paris and one preparatory recommendation stands out: you must learn as much of the French language as possible before you arrive. The advice books will instruct you in what, and how, to pack for your trip. The French currency and how, when, and where to convert US dollars is explained thoroughly. Details on esoteric walking tours and graduate courses in architecture are voluminous. But most important of all, they tell you, is the ability to speak the language. Being able to converse in French is not only a nicety, it is absolutely necessary to your very survival!
The best kept Paris secret is: EVERYONE IN PARIS SPEAKS ENGLISH. Trust me, it’s true. Oh, they may act like they don’t “parlent anglais,” but it is really just a matter of their not wanting to. They are French after all. But when push comes to shove–especially when it involves making a sale or collecting money–everyone in Paris speaks English.
You arrive at your hotel–reserved in advance in accord with guidebook advice–and greet the front desk clerk with “Howdy, y’all. It is Mr. And Mrs. American Tourist for our room.”
With a feigned look of confusion and a sincere disgusted demeanor, the clerk will say, “Bonjour, Monsieur et Madame. Avez-vous une reservation?”
You will probably say, “What?”
And he will say, “Good morning. Do you have a reservation? And how are you paying?”
See? You don’t need to spend all that time and money on learning French–they all speak your language.
Oh, but you doubters may argue that hotels have specially trained linguists to accommodate foreign travelers. You may hold that this type of situation is the exception rather than the rule? To quote the French, “Ah coontrar.”
You and Mrs. American Tourist go to any sidewalk cafe for a minor repast and tell the waiter–white apron, black bow tie, little pad and pencil, and 100% French–“We would like a ham sandwich and a glass of red wine.”
“Monsieur, you would like to share between you one jambon sandwich and one glass of wine? Mon dieu, ce qui un batard bon marche vous etes!”
See? The initial shock of typical American frugality threw him off for a moment, but he quickly reverted to polite French to continue the masquerade.
While browsing in any small Paris boutique, where you have been welcomed graciously with smiles and “bonjours,” make the statement loud enough to be heard, “This is nothing but an overpriced tourist trap filled with crap,” and see how quickly the proprietors, who act like they don’t speak English, become quite a bit less friendly, maybe even a little hostile.
Why do the French put us through all the trouble of referring to English/French dictionaries and translators when in many cases their English is better than the average American’s? A lot of business time is wasted… Oh, wait, I forgot; for the French, going into business is just something they do as a break between going on strike and going on vacation. So, it boils down to two reasons:
2. The French love charades.
The French just love the crazy way we try to convey our desires through pantomime. Indeed, charades is the most common game played by non-French-speaking tourists in Paris. But only the French know it is a game; the average traveler considers it basic communication.
Widely opening your mouth and gesturing toward it with one hand while rubbing your belly with the other, all the while continuously raising and lowering the eyebrows, means “Where can I find a really good French restaurant?” Holding one hand about six inches over the other in a parallel fashion while moving them up and down is the international sign for “carafe” of something. Acting as if drinking from your fist, followed by rolling the eyes and then crossing them indicates “wine.” The primitive dance and teeth-gritting grimace associated with a dire urgency to avail one’s self of a bathroom is universally recognized.
Final proof: Enter any tourist store along the rue de Rivoli, say in a loud voice, while waving around a wad of Euros, “Howdy, y’all. I want to buy a WHOLE LOT of them souvenirs!” Bet you a dime, you’ll find a lot of English spoken there.
Don Andrews is a 68-year-old retiree. Married to Linda for 47 years, he is the proud father of 4 fine sons. His 4 granddaughters, and soon-to-be-born grandson, are the joys of his life. After taking 5 years to complete SWANN’S WAY by Marcel Proust he eagerly awaits the movie.