French people, for whatever reason, have a bad rep in the US (oh right, now I remember: they refused to help us ‘liberate’ Iraq. They eat snails. And they think their language is the only one worth speaking). Rather than debate the merits of escargot, ‘Freedom Fries’ and the near extinction of ‘French Vanilla’ after 9/11, I’m going to stick with linguistics. Specifically, the fact that French people speak (or are presumed to speak) only French.
The hapless American tourist often wanders through Paris wondering, ‘What is wrong with these snobby, snail-eating Frenchies? Would it kill them to say hello?’ The name of this hapless American tourist is Pinhead Patty; she is one of Stupid Sally’s first cousins. Having made it to Europe, she’s a bit more worldly than Sally and her ilk back in South Philadelphia but not by far. Her husband, you see, is wearing one of those T-Shirts that says, ‘Welcome to America. Now Speak English.’ It is his favorite.
What Pinhead Patty and her husband don’t know is that French was the lingua franca of modern Europe well before English-speakers came to dominate North America. Indeed, that the original ‘lingua franca’ was a combination of Italian, Spanish, Arabic Greek, and, you guessed it, French.
In truth, I didn’t know that last part—the etymology part— until just now, when my curiousity about the exact origins of the ‘lingua franca’ sent me on a rather lengthy wikipedia diversion, courtesy of my hostess’s internet connection, but I do know that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
In other words, the French may be world renown for their monolingual tendencies but far be it from me, a monolingual myself, to point it out.
But this is only half of the story. The other half is that outside of Paris (and even inside certain sections of Paris, if my memory serves me correctly) French people are absolutely lovely.
Let’s take the French Airport Man as Exhibit A. When it finally dawned on me that all the bags from London has arrived and mine was not amongst them, I stumbled over to the information booth and stammered, ‘Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?’ (except I think I actually said ‘ingles’ because I always end up speaking Spanish when I’m trying to speak French). The woman behind the desk did not (speak English, that is), but the man behind me did.
Another victim of EasyJet’s rather carefree approach to luggage, he too arrived in Lyon sans suitcase. ‘Zhees way,’ he said, indicating a phone mounted on the wall at the other end of the hall. ‘She says we must call zhees number, and I will ask zhem to help you.’
Exhibit B was the French Engineering Student from the bus. By then, I had the whole damsel in distress thing going for me, so I’m not sure if he was just being a nice Frenchman or a flirtatious Frenchman (although I’m inclined to believe that they are one and the same). Having spent nearly fifteen minutes filling out paperwork for my ‘file’ in the baggage claim office, I missed the first bus to the city center and was, therefore, in danger of missing the Interpol rendezvous planned for my hostess’s lunch break.
She actually works for Interpol and the plan was for me to catch the bus from the airport to the train station and then another bus from the train station to Cite Internationale (aka Interpol HQ). From there, she would have just enough time to dash across Le Rhone and escort me and my suitcase (had it arrived) to her flat before another afternoon of, you know, securing the world and all that.
I now know that there is no ‘dashing’ in Lyon. At the time, however, I knew only that I was going to be late, and the international dialling codes I pounded into my mobile phone were not working.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, smiling at the young man seated across from me. ‘Do you speak English?’
‘Of course,’ he replied, smiling back.
‘I’m trying to get ahold of my friend,’ I explained, ‘but I think I’ve got the number wrong.’
‘Let me see,’ he said, reaching for my phone.
A minute later, I had gotten through. Five minutes later, French Engineering Student was telling me everything I had to be sure to see in Lyon (‘not the Funiculaire,’ he advised. ‘It is boring. But you will like the Parc de la Tete d’Or. You must go here.’).
Fifteen minutes later, he was escorting me past the train station and clicking through the automated ticket booth with the speed of one who, well, lives in Lyon. ‘The bus will come just here,’ he explained, handing me my ticket. ‘You take the C1 to City Internationale, and there you will see Interpol.’
‘Perfect!’ I exclaimed. I had had the forethought to research Things to See in Lyon before leaving the US but I had not had the forethought to transfer my notes from my suitcase to my carry on.
‘I think I will leave you here then,’ he said, ‘I have to be going to work now.’
‘Okay,’ I replied, ‘merci.’
Saying goodbye to someone you’ve only just met always requires a bit of tactical manuevering (hug? Kiss? Is it two kisses in southern France or just one? And finally—wait!— is Lyon actually in southern France? Travel contributes very little to my understanding of world geography) but I didn’t spend 14 (and 17, and 20 come to think of it) backpacking through Europe for nothing.
Two kisses, I decided— I even threw in a ‘Merci beaucoup’ for good measure— and this time, I was right.
‘I’m impressed,’ French Engineering Student said after we kissed (left, then right) and backed away with nary a collision on either part.
‘Thanks,” I laughed. I was feeling rather impressed myself, and not just with my unusually passable pronunciation, but with Frenchmen in particular and the kindness of strangers in general.