Before leaving for my trip to Paris, France, I felt my anxieties creeping around in the shadows and felt their dull gaze looking at me. A certain amount of accusation lingers in my mind–just underneath the surface. Americans have squandered significant amounts of goodwill in the world through their behavior abroad and through the last eight years of President Bush’s foreign policy.
Part of me expected to be shunned in France. Three and a half weeks before I left for my trip, I didn’t speak any French. I had picked a little French through osmosis. After all, my elementary school taught us to sing Frere Jacques and Alouette. Even though I could say good morning and good bye, I had no idea how to ask where the bathroom was or order a glass of water.
I found the French Survival Phrases podcast tremendously useful. Each day, I worked through as many lessons as I could and managed to cram twenty-five or so lessons in my head. I also picked up Lonely Planet’s French Phrasebook. I expected to be totally lost unless I could manage to speak and hear enough French to navigate through the various social transactions.
After all, if someone from France came to San Francisco and spoke only French, they would probably be out of luck. The nearest French speaking country lies about 2,915 miles (4,691 km) northeast of San Francisco. So not a lot of people in San Francisco speak French. Even if a person from France spoke Spanish, many people would greet them with curious looks and manage to squeak out “No habla espanol.” Despite the over 100 languages spoken in the Bay Area, people speak English in public–unless they’re with a group of other people that speaks the language.
I expected the people I met in Paris to be rude and totally ignore me unless I spoke French. I’m not sure where that expectation came from, but certainly that’s the impression that I had. To the contrary, the people I met in Paris were generally friendly, courteous and helpful despite the fact that my French must have sounded like tin cans banging together. I did put on my best manners by saying good morning sir or madam whenever I addressed someone. I always said please and thank you. Perhaps being polite and courteous helped me get off on the right foot. Or more likely, the French have a much better disposition than Americans typically think.
Surprisingly, many people in Paris spoke English and spoke it well. True, it’s only 300 miles from Paris, France to London, England and really only twenty or so miles across the English Channel (also known as “La Manche”). Tourism does play a major force in Paris and knowing English improves one’s ability to conduct commerce. Still, I found that many people spoke English with a generosity of spirit, an eagerness to be helpful and a pride in their ability. Of the hundreds of people I bumped into or spoke with, only two people really showed any frustration with my poor language skills.
I’m not sure that if someone came from Paris to visit San Francisco that they would be greeted with the same generosity or patience. Americans, how rude!