As I approached the Immigration officer at Logan airport in Boston, the officer – I think Boston Irish – was asking a young french man “how long will you be in the United States?”
The poor lad looked like a deer in the headlights – he hadn’t the faintest idea what he was being asked. Being a bit impatient and ready to make my way back home, I turned to the young man, guitar across his back, and in my broken french, asked: “Quand est-ce que vous retournez en France ?”
“Deux semaines” he replied.
“Two weeks,” I said to Customs.
“OK” said the Irish officer … and the young man … a student, maybe … was in.
I thought later: “Heaven help you, young man, if you think that as many people speak French in the US as speak English in France.” They don’t … and they don’t in France, either. If you are going to cling to your tour or your hotel in Paris, then you don’t need to know French. If you want to venture further … well you don’t need french, either. But there are rules, if you want to have a great time, meet lots of people, and not get lost for too long.
- Try to speak french. It will be painfully obvious that you do or don’t. The french will compensate. (See the survival guide below.)
- Don’t expect the French to speak English. In Paris and in large towns … in hospitality business like hotels and restaurants, someone will speak English. But here’s the thing .. they don’t have to. It’s their country. There is no requirement for you to speak French when a tourist in Boston ask you a question … in french … is there? Same rules apply in France. What you will find is that the French will be very happy to try to help you -and some will speak English, if needed (and they can). But expecting this courtesy is asking a bit much.
- Don’t think you can speak French, just because you studied it – I have had 8 years of french … all first year. My son had 5 years – and he does wonderfully well with letters. When he visited Provence, he was surprised at how little he could actually speak. So be patient. You’ll find that all the rumors about the arrogance of the French are wrong. In many cases, if you have studied French a little and try to use it, you will invariably end up talking – in franglish – with someone at the next table. Stay with french – switch to English when you need to keep the conversation flowing. Their interest is in learning more about you … and practicing English – American English.
So here are the rules to survive:
- Know the numbers to one hundred. Come on … it’s not that hard. Learn one to ten – then the teens – then it starts to repeat so you only need to know 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 … cent. Watch out for 80 and 90 – those are trick questions. I mean, really: 4 twenties instead of huitante? And 95 is 4 twenties 15? … OK. You can stop at 70.
- S’il vous plait – Please – Do not say to your waiter “Excusez moi” – it means nothing to them… unless you were in the way. To get attention: “S’il vous plait.”
- Bonjour – hello
- Merci – thank you
- Au revoir – bye
Learn the following phrases:
- Where is the … [Ou ai le (or la) … ]
- We are lost – [Nous sommes perdue.]
Do not learn “Je ne parle pas francaise” – It will be painfully obvious if you don’t. You could learn “desole” – [sorry] or “Je ne comprend pas” which they will likely already know. Actually, it is a bit of a contradiction to say (in French) that you don’t speak french.
Note – the French have a particularly interesting habit: If you ask a question in french, they respond in french; ask in English and they either shrug – that’s french for “I don’t understand you either” – or they respond in English. In other European countries, you’ll often attempt a question in German, or Dutch (for the 0.0003% of you who even come close) and what do they do? Respond in English. I think the Belgian bank tellers – usually young women – make a game of asking if they can help you … in your language … before you say anything. And they usually guess right, switching from French to German to Italian … and then smilig at me and asking “May I help you?”
The French are different. On several occasions I have had a French clerk ask me – in french, of course – if it would be easier for me if we spoke english.
Now which is the more arrogant? The French that usually respond in French and only switch to english (if they can) if you request … or the Northern European clerks (who no doubt, speak 5 languages) who automatically switch to english … they don’t even ask which of the 5 languages you speak. Somehow they know – and they automatically switch, assuming that you will no doubt have trouble with their language … as soon as you begin to speak.