I can’t think of many other situations quite as humbling as being reduced to the mental level of a toddler. And not even a very bright one at that. But when you decide to visit a foreign country without even a rudimentary knowledge of the language, you’ve got no one to blame but the person sleeping in your pajamas every night. Armed beforehand with the certainty that all misunderstandings were going to be my fault, I stepped off the plane in France with a Thank-You-and-I’m-Sorry policy firmly in place.
The first part of my philosophy stems from the knowledge that it’s hard for people to get rip-snorting mad with you as long as you’re expressing gratitude. Sure, we’d stumble into a pastry shop, slobber all along the glass cases and then point and grunt in Neanderthal style to wares that we wanted in boxes, but no matter how moronic we sounded, as long as we tacked on a merci to every guttural request, the storekeepers would normally let us slide without the sound berating we deserved. I had enough savvy to check the price tag on my items before I reached the register, since anything the cashier muttered in the way of a total sounded like verbal hieroglyphs; but on those rare occasions when the little Euro signs were face down, creating an air of suspense about the sum of all my fears, I simply stood in front of the cash register, held out a fistful of currency in an array of colors and denominations, and allowed the cashier to decide what an eclair for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed halfwit was truly worth. The picture to any onlooker would appear to suggest the following: Here! Please take all of my money since I have the communication skills of a rutabaga! Merci!
Yes, sir, I got a lot of mileage out of that one word. I thanked the taxi driver who almost wrecked us at least twice and got us lost once. I thanked the grouchy grocery store clerk who practically threw a banana at Lauren because she didn’t know to weigh it on the scale and get a ticket, whose importance obviously ranks up there with our Declaration of Independence. I even thanked the guy on the sidewalk who almost knocked me into oncoming traffic. For the first 36 hours I was in France, I was the most grateful person you’ve ever seen.
The second part of my policy came into play when I gathered enough courage to attempt a phrase or two in French. I got one or two words right, but others were abysmal failures. For instance, we decided to take a train to tour a château in a town called Blois. The guidebook said to pronounce it blah. Let me just say that the guidebook is full of blah.
Lauren and I arrived early at the train station and found a seat in a second class car. Five minutes after we should have departed, an intercom hissed to life, and we received a full explanation about our circumstances in French. The French passengers sighed and began to gather their belongings while a group of British girls let loose a stream of words that rang several bells and gave me an accurate four-letter assessment of our situation. We stepped off the train and ran into a Frenchman who had been seated ahead of us. Thinking to be helpful to the two women chattering in English and pointing at departure signs, he looked at me and said, “Paris?”
I shook my head. “Blah.”
His brows immediately came together, and he cocked his head to the side. “Paris?”
His brows remained in a straight line, and he slowed his speech to a pace used for those with an IQ in the single digits. “Paaarrreee?”
His countenance lightened and he chuckled softly. “Oh, Blois!”
What have I been saying here? Work with me, Frenchman! I apologized for my butchering of a local town.
He pointed to the train from which we had just disembarked, gave us a beautiful sampling of the French language and then disappeared down the stairs. I turned to Lauren, shrugged, and then we got back on the train to wait. Once you’ve got your heart set on Blah, you can’t talk yourself out of it . . . in any language.
© 2013 – Traci Carver