The city of fricken love! It’s the dream, right? But, do you speak French?
My first big overseas trip included ten days in Paris. I had always dreamt of travelling to France, after all, it’s the romance capital of the world, has the Eiffel Tower, the Arc De Triumph, the Louvre, and a hell of a lot of European attractions that are well and truly worthy of being on your bucket list.
To say I was excited is an understatement.
But, amidst all the planning, the packing, and the endless hours of imagining all of the fantastic things I would see and explore, communicating with the locals was the last thing on my mind!
Now, I’m a talkative person. I’m that person that can make conversation out of pretty much anything and can ramble for hours without really talking about anything specific (annoying, I know). So, how I never stopped to think about what it’s like to travel to a foreign speaking country is beyond me!
I studied French at school, from prep, right through to year ten, and I was pretty bloody good at it! After all, it was the only subject I took where half of your assessments involved the mere task of speaking. I know my basics, ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ and ‘Au Revoir’, I can even confidently tell people that my birthday is on December 25th, but apart from that, I may as well be an incoherent toddler speaking my own bloody useless language.
To give you an idea of how far over my head I was, picture me, on my first day in Paris busting to pee. When, much to my relief, I finally found an automatic public toilet, I then proceeded to freak the fuck out when I realised I didn’t know how to get the door open again, and the instructions/automatic voice over were all in French! I actually had visions of me spending my dream holiday lying on a piss covered toilet floor.
To make matters worse, I have a lisp. Now, imagine a girl wandering the streets of Paris, speaking hardly any French, with a strong Australian accent and a speech impediment. I’m sure the image you’ve concocted is less than glamorous, and you wouldn’t be wrong!
No one had a bloody clue what I was saying!
Admittedly, there are a lot of people that speak English, which for most people is great, but even they had trouble understanding me! It was embarrassing and frustrating, and if I’m being honest, it put a big damper on the whole trip.
Travelling to a foreign country is confronting at the best of times, especially if it’s your first time venturing that far from home. There is an element of culture shock, especially given how different things are in European countries to the land down under (you know, drop bears and all).
However, it’s all part of the experience. For the most part, you’ll find you can get away with pointing and smiling. You also need to know how to ask someone if they do speak English. In France, ‘Parlez-vous Anglais’ will become your new favourite phrase, and when someone says yes, you’ll want to bow down and kiss their feet or scream ‘Hallelujah’ at the top of your lungs, at least I know I did.
Europeans are used to tourists, however, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be respectful. If you can’t communicate with someone easily, try not to get frustrated. They’re trying to help you, so be patient, use a warm and friendly tone, and try your best. If they really can’t help you, thank them and move on.
I found that regardless of how much I struggled, there were always people willing to help me. Yes, there were a few people who would smile and stifle a laugh at my shockingly bad attempts, but I like to believe they were laughing with me, not at me (I swear I’m not delusional!)
Looking back on this trip now, I realise that I did let the language barrier get to me more than it should have. I even feel like there were certain experiences I missed out on because I felt intimidated and like I just couldn’t do it. If I get a chance to go back to Paris, not only will I be packing a really good phrase book and actually remembering to take it out of my suitcase, I will also make more of an effort to step outside of my comfort zone.
Travelling isn’t safe. It’s not something you do because you like a routine or because you want to feel 100 per cent comfortable. When you’re in a strange city where people are speaking an entirely different language to you, it can be scary; but it can also be exciting.
This is your chance to learn about a different language and culture first-hand; it’s also the perfect time to accumulate a long list of hilarious disaster stories, like my humiliating toilet debacle. You might not laugh at the time, but trust me, you will laugh at yourself later!