My first trip to Paris was in 2005. I was a young, freshly minted college graduate smack in the middle of my Backpacking Through Europe on a Shoestring rite of passage. I was overconfident and entitled, emboldened by the illusion that my charms would make up for my lack of good judgement.
Thankfully, Paris overwhelmed me in every single way. The heat, the humidity, the throngs of people, the vast distances, the ridiculous amount of stained glass. It was a lot to take in and it silenced me for a good long while.
The good news is that I loved Paris. The bad news is that I came away believing that the Parisians were stuck up. “Stereotypes about the French exist for a reason,” I thought to myself, boldly and without irony, whenever someone would roll their eyes at me for mispronouncing Champs–Élysées or arrondissement.
Fast forward 12 years. A good friend of ours sends us an email saying his job is sending him to Paris for a week and would we like to join him for a bit. A ticket from Málaga to Paris was $27, so, duh.
This second trip to Paris was so very different, so much more rewarding. I am certain that part of the reason is age, but the bulk of it, really, is that I’ve learned to speak a little French. R insists that we learn the native language where ever we go, so we’ve become students of Pimsleur language lessons. We spend 30 minutes a day learning how to say, “I don’t understand,” and “Check, please,” among other important phrases. Since our next stop was Morocco, a former French colony, he’d been plugging away at Arabic and it’s been my job to learn French.
The impromptu trip to Paris gave me a chance to try out my newly acquired skills. I am a clumsy and nervous speaker, to be sure, and even if I get the sentence out correctly I almost never understand the response. But these attempts at communication are met with patience rather than disdain. The most rewarding interactions are the ones in which the person I’m speaking to only knows a little English, and I only know a little French, yet we manage to understand and be understood.
Everywhere we go, people speak more than one language. The wait staff in Paris could get by in English, German, and Spanish. We met a guide in Portugal who spoke Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English. In Morocco, a man who helped us find a restaurant spoke fluent Arabic, French, German, English, Spanish, and Berber. “I have a good head,” he said. Yes, indeed.
Our friend – the one we’d come to Paris to meet – had already been in France for more than a week when we arrived. He spoke no French and was visibly relieved to once again be speaking English to people who could understand him. I know how that feels.
Here is the truth about humanity: We are communal beings. It is exhausting and lonely to be surrounded by people who you don’t understand and who don’t understand you.
In defense of myself and my fellow citizens, the U.S. is big and not that linguistically diverse. Learning a second or a third language isn’t as necessary as it is in most of the rest of the world. This is not a great excuse, but it is the reason why our schools don’t start teaching a foreign language until the ninth grade, when it’s already too late. In most other countries, kids start learning another language in elementary school.
I was kind of an entitled jerk back in 2005, speaking only English and expecting it to be spoken back to me. It’s no way to make friends. To all my friends and colleagues, and anyone else reading this in the U.S., do yourself a small favor and make an effort to learn a little Spanish. It will go a long way toward helping you understand and be understood, locally and abroad. This is what the world needs right now – people willing to understand each other. You’ll be delighted with the results.
At the very least, the next time someone tells you, “I don’t speak very good English,” be nice, ok? I still can’t properly pronounce arrondissement, but the Parisians are more forgiving now and that’s everything to do with the effort I am putting into it.