Je ne parle pas français

My friend Kathleen and I recently traveled to Paris for a long weekend vacation. While the city was beautiful, it was also much larger than my host city of Sevilla (with 2.2 million inhabitants compared to Sevilla’s roughly 700,000). Walking to most of our destinations was practically impossible. Instead of having only a couple metro lines, the Paris metro has about twelve, which made navigating difficult because we had to switch trains several times per trip.

To top it all off, neither Kathleen nor I know how to speak a word of French. Since we are living in a Spanish city and know how to speak the language, we did not fully realize the difficulties English-speaking tourists encounter in foreign cities. The inability to communicate with anyone honestly bothered me more than getting lost all the time.

For some reason, the hardest monument for us to locate was the Sacre Coeur, a gorgeous cathedral perched atop a hill in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. We stopped to ask at least five different people, who pointed vaguely in the right direction but obviously couldn’t give us genuine directions in French. I’ve never felt so lost and helpless; at least in Spain, when I get lost I can ask for help with confidence in my language skills. The only phrase Kathleen and I knew was “Ou est le Sacre Coeur?

Finally, we stumbled upon a McDonald’s with wi-fi (a valuable commodity in Europe) and sipped two coffees while we studied the map on Kathleen’s phone. Before we left, though, we stopped to ask directions of the employees, just in case Google Maps led us astray. The first man we talked to said, “I don’t live in Paris,” and gestured to his coworker, the young woman who had served us our coffees and spoke English to take our orders.

Pardon, but I don’t speak English,” she told us—in English.

Confused and shocked, we stumbled out the door and onto the Parisian streets again, hoping our Google Map directions were correct. Neither of us had ever encountered such a blatantly rude person in Spain, since most Spaniards in the service industry greet customers with smiles. We had heard the stereotype that the French were snobby and rude, but chosen not to believe it without proof. Now, it seemed that we had some.

Without knowing the mindset of the young Frenchwoman at the McDonald’s, it’s difficult to guess what cultural norms contributed to what we saw as her rudeness. Maybe, being a Parisienne, she was tired of tourists barging into the restaurant asking for directions. Maybe we were the fifth group of tourists that day. Removing all judgment from the encounter, perhaps it went like this from her perspective:

The Americans bought coffee and huddled over their smart phone in the corner. Just when I thought they might leave without burdening us with questions—not even trying to speak French—they approached the counter. My coworker gestured to me and I muttered an insult under my breath. I didn’t feel like straining to understand English today; I had only taken a few classes at university anyway. Everyone always considered me fluent.

Perhaps our assumptions about the responsibilities of service industry workers to be perpetually cheerful and helpful colored our view of the young woman at McDonald’s. Maybe in France, service industry workers are not drilled to greet everyone with a smile and bend over backwards because “the customer is always right.”

When I asked someone familiar with French culture (although they were not French, because I do not study there) whether they thought French people were sometimes rude, they said yes. They warned us to remember that France is not Spain, and that people from northern European countries often have a brusquer attitude. In a way, it’s similar to the assumptions we make about regions in the U.S. Northerners are much more blunt to the point of rudeness, goes the typical wisdom, while southerners tend to be more friendly and welcoming. As with all stereotypes, these characterizations ring somewhat true in in both countries, but they are never absolutely true. For example, the owner of our Air BnB in Paris always greeted us with a “Bonjour” and a smile.

While I loved touring Paris and seeing wonderful museums and monuments, I definitely experienced some major culture shock. I never realized before leaving Spain how difficult dealing with a language barrier can be, since I’ve always lived in countries where I can speak the language. Paris was an eye-opening experience and I would love to return, but next time I’m definitely learning a little French first.

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