After studying French in high school, in college, and Graduate school before taking French lessons at private workshops, I landed in Paris prepared to speak French. Yet upon hearing Parisian natives converse for several days, I was convinced my plane had somehow landed in the wrong country.
I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. I was prepared to call the airline and complain about their pilot’s directional error. In fact, I wanted to demand the refund of my money, explaining that the pilot had taken the passengers to some God forsaken land whose inhabitants spoke only gibberish. While contemplating this move, I was reminded of what Mark Twain once said, declaring he had gone to France and spoken to the natives in French, and was greatly surprised the Frenchmen didn’t know how to speak their own language.
Reason prevailed and I decided not to complain to the airline after all. Instead, I concluded it would be wiser to allow the French to teach me to speak their language. My classrooms? Cafes on Boulevard Saint Germaine and Saint Micheal. Seats in Left Bank parks. Department stores as I eavesdropped on conversations of shoppers.
In spite of the fact I’d taken all these courses in French, I couldn’t, in an “embarrassing emergency,” ask a Parisian where the lavatory was. By the way, in Paris, it’s not “the lavatory.” It’s “the lavatories.” Saying “the lavatory,” the natives feel, is too crude and shows a lack of refinement and taste. One has to wonder if in an emergency one wishes to be refined or to be relieved. That, as the Bard would say, is the question. I vote for the latter.
I quickly learned certain things about French that I hadn’t learned during my “French education” in the States. One: in a restaurant, never call the waiter “garcon,” meaning “boy.” Doing so is an insult. Address him as “monsieur.” If a waitress serves you, call her “Madame” or “Mademoiselle.” As for giving the waiter a big tip, as many Yankees are prone to do, remember, usually the tip is included in the bill. If you wish to give an extra tip, do what the natives do: they sometimes leave a nominal one. A few centimes (cents) will do.
Also, don’t feel at a restaurant or café, you have to drink or eat and run. I’ve sat at a café or a restaurant for hours and nobody has asked me to move. To do so would be considered poor taste in France. In contrast, I’ve been asked to move on in a restaurant here in the States. The owner wanted to give my table to another paying customer. Such a request would never have happened in the City of Light. So much for “French crudeness and impoliteness.”
My free French lessons made me aware that what I’d learned about the language Stateside, I had to unlearn in Paris. I was taught “Comment allez vous,” is the way you ask how a person is feeling. Most Frenchmen don’t say that. Instead they say, “Ca va?” Pronounced “Sah, vah?” This means, “How are things going?”
I’m delighted to report that the tale of my French language adventures had a happy ending. After being in Paris about a year, I made an amazing discovery. French are smart people. During that time they’d learned to speak their own language properly. Amazing, isn’t it?.
Footnote: Don’t feel guilty if you slept half the time in your high school French class. That may be a blessing. If you slept half the time you’ll only have half as much to relearn if you go to Paris. I didn’t sleep in my French classes…sadly.
Fin. The End.