A French Experience
“Business etiquette in Nigeria is very different than it is in the United States and Western Europe,” Dein commented casually. Except, she was speaking French in an austere classroom in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, France.
As the third most visited city in the world, Paris is also one of the most touristy. In the course of a year, 42 million foreigners come to gawk at the Eiffel Tower, shop along the Champs Elysées, and eat in French fine dining establishments. At any given point, a significant portion of people living in Paris are not Parisian (after all, there are only about two and a quarter million Parisians), and often they are not even French. Paris is so romanticized by foreigners that a disorder, Paris Syndrome, exists to diagnose those tourists that are let down upon visiting the City of Light and the ultimate inevitable realization that it is a city and not, in fact, utopia.
For me, an American girl trying to learn French, this translated mostly into frustration: everyone spoke English.
Even more challenging to my attempts at language-learning was the way that Parisians would switch into English the second they realized that I was even marginally uncomfortable with French.
As a result, a lot of my tests of skill came in the form of distressed tourists who needed me to explain bus schedules or to translate their more lexically complicated requests. Weekend visits to the countryside also helped me to practice – while Parisians may be bilingual for the most part, there is less tourism outside of Paris and therefore less reason to learn English. On one such adventure, I arrived at the Bayeux train station just as the buses running between Bayeux and Omaha Beach in Lower Normandy stopped running. What was supposed to be a relatively leisurely weekend camping on Omaha Beach turned into a twenty-five kilometer forced march along the coast of La Manche. Suffice to say – I didn’t make it all the way that night, and I’d give a lot to know how crazy the man running the campsite thought I was when I knocked on his door at midnight babbling in French about late trains and begging for directions and asking to pitch my tent and if I could please stay the night. Later on the same trip, I had to file a police report in French for my missing wallet, which had been either lost or stolen.
The summer wore on, fewer and fewer people switched into English to talk to me, and sometimes if I just listened and said something to indicate understanding or some basic response, I fancied that they didn’t even know that I wasn’t one of them.
As an International Studies major, the pervasiveness of English in Paris was more than just a frustration; it was a sign of globalization, of the importance of cross-cultural communication in the modern world – a sign of a truly global city. World class. For me, Paris was a place to learn French from Parisians, yes. But it was also a place to interact with people from all over the world both geographically and socially, in our single common language – also French.
The program I was enrolled in at the Sorbonne, the first University of Paris, helped me to embrace the city’s level of internationalism. I was one of two Americans and five English speakers in my class of about twenty students – others were Argentinian, Swiss, Brazilian, Korean, Japanese, Nigerian, South African, German, Turkish, or Russian. The other American in the class no longer identified as an American; he’d moved to France when he had retired ten years earlier. Our classes would devolve from discussions of French grammar to class-wide cultural dialogues. Ultimately I probably learned more about the world and what it means to me that I’m an American than I did French – and for all that I harp on the prevalence of English, I was incredibly comfortable with French after two months abroad.
Two months later when you come back and everyone wants to know the highlights of what you did, what you learned, what it was like – it’s hard to sum up. I always end up talking about mundane things, like what I cooked for dinner, or going to the grocery store. Sometimes I tell the sketchier stories about uncomfortable situations on public transportation. Quotidian situations made ever-so-slightly exotic by a new setting and language: French.
I’m looking forward to going back to Paris this winter with the University of Chicago – I can’t stay away! – but in the “off-season” and among friends, I know it’s going to be a fundamentally different experience.