Parlez-vous Anglais?

In 2014, at the ripe old age of 41, I went to Europe for the first time. Well, not all of it; just a few nights in London, followed by bit of France, a bit of Switzerland, a bit of Germany, a few nights in Amsterdam, and then one more night back in Paris before flying home. It was so much more than a holiday. That three week adventure was a real game-changer for me in terms of my world view. Australia is an insanely long flight from just about everywhere, so I think maybe my sense of needing to get out there and see what the rest of the world has to offer is heightened by the geographical isolation of my home country. I’ve made it a life goal to travel as much as I possibly can, in part because I absolutely love the adventure of it all, in part because being kid free and mortgage free and allows me the opportunity to do so, in part because I’m still young and healthy enough to be able to get the most out of it. Travel is life. St Augustine nailed it when he said, “The world is a book. Those who do not travel only read one page.”

I’d traveled overseas a little bit before the big 2014 European trip. Two working holidays to America in the late 90’s, a four day work junket to Singapore and Vietnam in 2006, and a wonderfully relaxing week in Fiji in 2007. Those trips mostly involved situations in mainstream tourist areas where I was able to speak English and be understood, so navigating the language barrier was a brand new and slightly daunting experience for me on this 2014 trip. From the moment I arrived on the continent, as the Eurostar out of London pulled in to Gare du Nord, I was – not surprisingly – surrounded by the intoxicating sound of people speaking French. It’s such a beautiful language to listen to even when I have no idea what is being said. I needed to work out how to perform basic transactions like ordering food and asking where the toilets are armed with no more than a few very basic phrases in French, and initially that felt like an almost overwhelming challenge, especially with jetlag involved.

On our first day in Paris Paul and I were walking the gorgeous streets of the Le Marais district near our AirBnB when we strolled into a Sephora store to check out all the colognes we hadn’t yet seen on shelves in Australia. A young shop assistant approached me and, to my absolute horror, started speaking to me in, of all things, French. (I know, right? Shocking! Alert the media!)

I froze, realising much to my own horror that of all the handy French phrases I had armed myself with, simply saying “I’m just browsing, thanks” or French words to that effect was not among them. As someone who speaks for a living and is used to being able to communicate freely with people, this was a whole new experience for me. I handled it pretty deftly, though.

“Paul! Help!”

Paul, who speaks three languages and was therefore much more accustomed to these kinds of situations than I was, addressed the shop assistant with a friendly, “Non, merci” (gee, that wasn’t so hard after all was it?) and the shop assistant cheerfully toddled off to the other side of the store and left us alone. Phew. This was clearly going to take some getting used to for me.

After another hour or so of admiring the streetscapes of Paris, mouths agape from the extraordinary beauty of it all, we were standing on a street corner in front of an ATM when a gentleman approached, speaking in rapid French, quite obviously wanting to get past me to use the ATM. Without giving myself time to prepare an appropriate response in French, I stepped out of his way as I blurted out the first words that came into my mind, complete with my Australian twang.

“Go for it, mate!”

The French guy looked at me like I was from outer space, which made Paul laugh quite hard for hours afterwards. “Go for it, mate!” then became one of the catchphrases of that trip.

Paris was a steep linguistic learning curve for me. An odd mistake I kept on making was using “bonjour” at inappropriate moments, for example, as I was walking out of an establishment. Yeah, that’s right, I would wave and say “hello!” as I was leaving a room. Go me.

Have you ever heard it said that French people are rude? I used to hear that all the time when I was a kid, mostly from people who have never been to France, and one of the things this trip taught me that the whole French-people-are-rude thing is a fallacy. I found the vast majority of people I interacted with to be really sweet and polite despite the language barrier. Once I got the hang of using “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?” (“Hello, do you speak English?”) perhaps with a little “Excusez moi” (“excuse me”) thrown in for good measure, I found that those who could speak English were happy to do so, and those who didn’t would mostly be pretty cool about it. There was one woman in a department store who got all snotty with me when I hit her with the old parlez-vous anglais, but that’s OK. There will always be a certain percentage of not-very-nice-people wherever you go, right?

Morning Pages. 9.33am. Friday. June 27th 2014.

I’m sitting at a little cafe near the Eiffel Tower, which is much bigger in person than I expected. Got some awesome shots, walked around, and now we are about to have a little coffee and take in the ambiance of this place while I do some writing for a while. Love it.

Random Parisian observations: French women tend to walk the streets with confidence, shoulders back, tits forward, looking awesome. Men about my Dad’s age dress with confidence and style. Bright colours, scarves… Awesome to see, although I can’t help but think that if my Dad tried dressing like this back in Bathurst he’d be driven out of town. People’s default expression is set to cheerful. Lots of giggling in amongst overheard conversations. Walking past restaurants I can’t help but notice that nobody is on their phones. People are learning forward, making eye contact with each other, gesticulating with their hands as they speak. It’s infectious and adorable. Paris people just look so casually classy. American tourists stick out like dogs balls here, and not just because of their bum bags (which ought to be banned by the Parisian fashion police) and the truly extraordinary volume of their voices.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that French people seem to be very happy and polite most of the time, but when they snap it happens very quickly and decisively. We were in a fruit shop yesterday and I must have brushed against a mango which fell down from it’s display. It was very obvious to me that the woman behind me was very displeased with me. No idea what she said, but it sure as hell wasn’t complimentary.

I’m just loving sitting here. Did I mention how much I adore Paris? It’s too beautiful. My real life feels like it’s a million light years away. Oh cute! Just spotted a Jack Russell on the corner. That’s another thing I love about Paris. Dogs go wherever the owner goes, and that’s adorable. I’m yet to step in dog shit, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

The jetlag is still a bitch, so we had a nap yesterday. Then came ten of my favourite minutes of this trip so far – gathering food for lunch. We found a bakery on our street where we bought a chicken and salad baguette. I know that sounds ordinary, but I swear it was the most amazing thing I have ever eaten. We also bought some mint flavoured Perrier water (why do we not have this in Australia?) and some fruit, including the most incredible banana ever. It had the most banana-y flavour in the history of banana-dom. When it comes to food, the French really know how to nail it. Actually, this city is a real treat for all five of my senses.

I’m also learning a lot about the art of photography on this trip. About fifteen hundred photos so far, and I’m guessing a hundred of those will be good, and out of those maybe forty will be total gems. How lucky are we to to live in a generation where you don’t have to do shots on film with no idea how they worked out until you get them back from the chemist. Just snap away at will… No worries! Go for it, mate!

From France we moved on to Switzerland, where many languages are spoken, including English, so no problems there. In Germany, things got even easier because your average Berliner speaks better English than most Queenslanders do. Not once did I hear a local utter the word “like” where it did not belong in a sentence. However, walking past a restaurant table full of American tourists in Berlin I heard the following:

“So I like said to her, like, are you kidding me. Like, really? Like, what were you thinking?”

As with France, I had armed myself with a couple of key phrases in German. Almost every time I tried to use one of those phrases to a German person they would just speak back to me in English, as if to say “Nice try, let’s just make this easier for both of us and do this in English hey?” They didn’t even seem to flinch or take any issue with it. It became a challenge for me to use a German phrase convincingly enough that I could get a local to respond to me in German. It only happened once, and when it did the response I got was in rapid fire German, and I was immediately lost.

“Aaah… Sprechen Sie Englisch?” (Aaah… Do you speak English?)

My most memorable experience to do with language on this entire trip took place at, rather unglamorously, a McDonalds in Munich. The pretty girl behind the counter smiled sweetly as I approached and I started with my very best “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” Her adorable little face twisted up and she held her thumb and forefinger together as she said “Aah, a little.”

I looked at the board behind her and was once again grateful that cappuccino is a word that seems to be understood around the world. (Truth be known I’m more of a skinny flat white guy, but you know… path of least resistance) I held up one finger, said “cappuccino, bitte” and then made a stretching motion with my hands to demonstrate that I wanted that in a large. I could tell in an instant that she totally got it.

She nodded and smiled sweetly then she even attempted, albeit clumsily, to ask me how my holiday was going in her very best English. When she handed me my coffee I pointed at her and said “Your English…” then pointed at myself “..better than my German!” She giggled, I giggled and waved goodbye, and I walked out of that Maccas feeling amazing about that exchange.

That’s when it hit me: Friendliness is an international language, and we all speak it. You can get your message across using body language, tone, and intent and have a really satisfying exchange with another human being without needing to share the same language. This realisation made the planet feel like a smaller and much more accessible place, and that is one of the many valuable life lessons travel has so far taught me.

At the very end of the trip we had another interesting experience to do with language, but this time the language was English. I don’t mean to come off as unpatriotic here, but I have to be honest: A full on bogan Aussie accent can be the linguistic equivalent of fingernails going down a blackboard, especially when you’re stuck in a long check in queue at Charles De Gualle airport and you haven’t heard another Aussie accent in a few weeks. It was a particularly cringeworthy moment for Paul and I, and one that I can imagine just about every Aussie who has travelled can relate to, when we overheard an Aussie Mum who was clearly having a frustrating day trying to wrangle her little shithead.

“Jayden! Is that your suitcase Jayden? JAYDEN, get your arse over here, NOW, Jayden… JAY…DEN!!!”

There are no words to describe how piercing and irritating this woman’s voice was. If I was Jayden I’d want to run off in the other direction too. Team Jayden!

Paul grinned as he leaned in towards me. “Hey Jayden”, he said quietly in his best pretend Aussie bogan accent, “Go for it, mate!”

*I was totally kidding about Dubbo. It’s a hole.

Published by gavindmiller

I talk and I write.

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  1. Nice summary of language challenges and the experience of being an outsider in Europe. I agree with you. Friendliness,manners and a bit of patience are your international passport to the world. The only time I’ve also experienced rude parissienes was when I forgot to attempt the language. If I made the effort they generally put me out of my misery for both our sakes! Saw your great photos and loved Paul’s music in the recent YouTube adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

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