I went to France fully expecting to dislike the French. There are two reasons for that.
Reason #1: the stereotype
The French are known for stinky cheeses, berets and their infamous rudeness. I’d heard horror stories about how they belittle tourists. Heaven help you if you’re an American who doesn’t know how to speak French, like me.
Reason #2: day trip
At least the second reason was based in reality. Fifteen years ago, while living in England with my ex-girlfriend, I went to France. My ex, her family, and I took a day trip, slicing across the English Channel aboard a spaceship-sized catamaran, from the chalky cliffs of Dover to a little seaside town in France.
As the one with the most French experience (which wasn’t saying much), my ex’s brother was charged with interpreting. He battled through the menu, squinting and sweating, like a man disarming a bomb. Every word he uttered was a wire cut, never knowing whether the timer would stop or we would all blow up.
The server looked on, pitiless and placid, his posture ramrod straight, silent and still, pad and pen at the ready.
After several grueling minutes, my ex’s brother asked in desperation, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes, of course,” the server said in fluent English, like a poolside Olympic swimmer who’d just casually watched someone drown.
That one experience, coupled with the stereotypes to which I’d been exposed, was enough for me to arrive at a conclusion: the French are fucking rude.
I held onto that belief until a couple of weeks ago.
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Postgrad in Paris
When my wife, Daniela, told me her postgraduate program required her to travel to Paris every couple of months for a year and a half, I knew it was only so long I could put off visiting The City of Light.
I know, I know, this is the height of privilege — bitching and moaning about traveling to a legendary, cosmopolitan city — but I was not looking forward to contending with Parisians, especially since my French is nonexistent.
Pouting and whining like a colicky baby, I took a redeye to Paris with Daniela, and was promptly disabused of my preconceived notions. I was wrong.
Have you ever made an assumption about people that turned out to be completely wrong? Tell me in the comments.
Rosetta Stone and Google Translate
I found the French to be welcoming and helpful. Most of the time, they spoke English, and if they didn’t, they made an effort to understand what you were saying.
There were times when the language barrier was an issue. Most taxi drivers did not speak English, so when they’d ask me a question, all I could do was say, “Je ne parle pas français,” and show them the address on my phone. But they didn’t care. That’s all they needed. I would add a “bonjour” and a “merci” and maybe a “pardon” for my woeful French, and I was golden.
One driver said something to me I could not understand while pointing at the gridlock in front of us. He turned the car around, and I said, “traffic,” which I had learned was also used to mean “traffic” in French, much like how in Argentina people say, “el shopping.” He nodded. I beamed inside.
Some restaurants had English menus, but some did not. Some servers didn’t have strong enough English to translate the menu, which left me to utilize a combination of Google Translate, Spanish and high-school Latin in an effort to decipher the menu.
But those challenges didn’t factor much in our dining experiences. The service was invariably impeccable. Friendly but not fawning. Attentive but not meddlesome. Patient but not coddling. If you made an effort — a genuine effort, not a token effort — to understand and speak their language, however bumbling, they would usually treat you with respect.
Wine Bar of the World
That’s not to say all French people I came across were polite and helpful. There were a few rude people, sure. One server in Bordeaux comes to mind. He refused to serve us because we asked to see the wine menu first and weren’t sure if we were going to eat dinner yet. He informed us that they were not a bar. They were a restaurant.
“You can have a drink right next door or over there, but not here. We are a restaurant,” he said flapping his eyelashes, nodding his head and pursing his lips. “Je suis désolé.”
Ah, this was the notorious condescension I’d been waiting for. Parfait. I had a sneaking suspicion he was not, in fact, désolé.
By the way, this place was called “Voilà ! Bar à vins du monde,” or “wine bar of the world.” Chef’s kiss.
If I had met no one else but this server, it would have been enough to close the case on French rudeness forever. Guilty as charged. Etch it in stone. I would have sauntered through the rest of my life convinced that all French people were crabby bastards. Luckily, a reservoir of positive experiences from my trip allowed me to see the truth: French people weren’t assholes. This guy was an asshole.
I wanted to leave in a huff, but Daniela gently suggested the restaurant right next door. I’m glad she did, because we had a fantastic time. The food was great, and our server was super warm and welcoming. More importantly, it gave me the opportunity to order champagne and multiple courses while facing the rude server as he worked. He noticed us. I smiled. I’m petty, what can I say?
Note for Spanish speakers: If you want to go to France but don’t speak French, I highly recommend Bordeaux. Because of its proximity to Spain, many people there speak Spanish, including our server that night.
It’s Their World
I would be lying if I said the language barrier wasn’t an issue. There were moments of frustration, and over time they started to wear on me. Toward the end of the trip, I was tapped out.
I wasn’t just tired of speaking French; I was tired of all the little mental efforts necessary to move through a foreign place. The trash and recycling works differently there. So do the lights. So do the hand dryers in public places (still don’t know how to operate those). So do the trains. So do the controls for a seat on a train. So do door locks. Everyday actions came with mini puzzles. I was over it. I just wanted to be comfortable.
Daniela had a wise take on that feeling: She told me it was good that we were uncomfortable. It was a reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us, that we were in their country, not in our personal playground. She was right.
My biggest gripe with France was the language, and that’s not their fault. It’s mine.
Immigrants in the U.S.
I complained about inconveniences while wining and dining in one of the consensus best places in the world to do that. Imagine what my parents had to endure when they moved to this country from Argentina. They weren’t on vacation. They were trying to build a life in a strange place with strange customs and strange everyday things they had to learn. They weren’t staying in beautiful hotels and apartments. They were in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s, before it became “HK.” Not knowing the language wasn’t just an inconvenience. It impeded progress. It prevented them from getting certain jobs. In some cases, it put targets on their backs. They didn’t do it for nine days. They did it for the rest of their lives. Well, almost.
I think about all the immigrants who come to the U.S., how they struggle to learn a new system, a new way of life, and a new language. What do they get for their troubles? They’re ridiculed for having accents, or they’re admonished for not learning the language. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of Americans can speak a second language (I wonder how low that number would be if you didn’t factor the children of immigrants), compared with 56 percent of Europeans.
I don’t have firsthand experience with how the French treat immigrants, but I know how they treat tourists. Imagine if a French tourist came to New York or Chicago or any other major American city and spoke French everywhere they went. It would be virtually impossible.
In my experience, the French are more tolerant of people who don’t speak French than Americans are of people who don’t speak English.
And as the late Sidney Sheldon, an Oscar- and Tony Award-winning writer, once said:
Just remember, when someone has an accent, it means that he [they] knows one more language than you do.
David Sedaris has a great collection of essays called "Me Talk Pretty One Day" about learning to speak French and observations about France and America. Being one of the 80% monolingual set is a regret for sure.
My experience with France has been similar to yours. Most people have been incredibly nice and welcoming when I’ve visited, and I only know basic greetings and understand approximately 5% of what is said to me. In fact, my first trip to France was an incredibly humbling experience because it was the first country I had been in where I understood almost nothing and was unable to communicate at least a little in the local language.
A couple of years ago I worked with a woman originally from France and she told me that she felt that people in Spain were too over-the-top. She explained that her Spanish friends here would gush over how handsome a guy was, but in France her friends would have said something more like “He’s not bad” and that was taken as a huge compliment for the guy. She also said she felt it was overwhelming how everyone calls you “guapa” in Spain (something that I personally hate in the US--being called “sweetie” or “honey”--but find endearing here). It’s interesting to learn about those little cultural differences!