I like to do my best to speak the local language when I’m abroad. I got a B in Higher French at high school, and have self-taught myself Spanish and Greek as an adult. Despite all my efforts, I’m only fluent in English, but I’ve always prided myself in trying to speak other languages, with varying results. The most common result is laughter… at my expense.
My university friends decided to inter-rail around Europe for the summer. I couldn’t afford it, but found a very cheap airfare on a famous Irish airline that would fly me to Paris to meet them for a few days. As is typical of said airline, it took me to a tiny little airport that had a Portakabin as a terminal, about an hour north of Paris. The bus that took me from there, dropped me off in a part of the city that I couldn’t initially place on a map. It was essentially just a car park. The surrounding buildings were tall and I couldn’t find any of those rather well-known landmarks that Paris is famous for. After a spell of going round in circles, I eventually found my way to the Champs Elysees, and a metro station. Hopping on, I settled in for the ride. Then got out and changed lines, and settled in for the ride. Then got out and changed lines, and settled in for the ride, eventually reaching the 20th arondissement where my bed for the week was.
I had a day to myself before my friends arrived, so I spent it wandering around the graves of dead famous people. It’s one of those things that is often in guidebooks, and to be honest I’ve done it in more than one cemetery in more than one country. However, whilst casting my eye over the wreaths and gifts left by adoring fans of the previously rich and famous, I can’t help but feel there is something banal and pointless about it all. Having said all that, I still have the obligatory photos of Chopin’s, Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s resting places. Why else would you go to Paris?
On the flip side, I loved the Louvre. I spent all day there, and could have easily gone back for more the following day. I may not be keen on wandering around the graves of dead people, but I adore history, especially natural history, and therefore museums make me immensely happy. I’m not as fussed about art, but wandering through the corridors of the Louvre stirred enough in me to make me fascinated by the ageing works of art hanging on the walls. I spent so long there, I practically had to be shepherded out at the end of the day.
I had arranged to meet my friends next to the leg (or foot) of the Eiffel Tower. Staying out in the far reaches of the city, it took me longer to get there than I anticipated. It wasn’t till I got there that I realised our error. The concourse was mobbed, people surging about all over the place, but this was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that the Eiffel Tower, or La Tour Eiffel to give it its proper name, has 4 legs. We hadn’t specified which one. After half an hour, I came to realise the futility of the situation, especially as numerous phone calls went unanswered. It eventually transpired that my friends had left their UK mobiles at their hotel, not thinking they would need them, and as their visit to Paris was shorter than mine, a rendezvous never occurred. I essentially found myself spending 6 days in the most romantic city in the world (supposedly), all on my own.
I spent my days seeing the sights: L’Arc de Triomphe, La Cathedrale de Notre Dame, La Tour Montparnasse, Sacre Coeur, varying jardins, and out to the Palais de Versailles which was absolutely stunning. The palace was amazing and the grounds also – a great place to visit away from the city. All of these places posed varying language challenges, but the worst was when I wanted to eat. I’d long mastered the art of ordering food and drink, as well as general chitchat and pleasantries, but admittedly my accent left a lot to be desired. My attempts at ‘la langue francaise’ were generally met by laughter, looks of intense concentration as they tried to make out what I was saying, or replies in English, the speaker clearly feeling that my French was too ridiculous to converse with, and trying to show me up with their easy grasp of my language. My foreign language skills tend to fall down around my ears when the person I’m trying to converse with is doubled over laughing at me. In the cafe on the top floor of La Tour Montparnasse, I’d asked for ‘un cafe noir’, which resulted in a barage of babbled monologue that ultimately resulted in the word ‘ESPRESSO’ being spoken to me slowly like I was a child. I found it easier to just agree, and made a point of hanging around the cafe longer than was necessary just to make a point. At Versailles, my request (in French) for a filled baguette, was met by a big sigh, and a response in English regarding the fact that it was cheese OR ham, and that both were not an option. This odd fashion for only 1 ingredient, was reinforced on a subsequent trip to France several years later, where, on a day trip to St Malo, I asked for a baguette (again in French), only to be laughed at, mocked visibly in my presence to the gentleman in the queue behind me, and again met by the retort of ‘buerre OU mayo, pas le buerre ET le mayo!’ Frankly, I’d rather have a Ploughman’s sandwich any day, but at least I tried…