It was due to sheer circumstance that I found myself with two days in Lyon, France, and I was woefully unprepared. All I had was the name and address of my hotel, a confirmation number, and a flight booked home. Within minutes of stepping off the train, I felt the pleasure of having successfully navigated myself into a taxi but as he began to ask me questions in the friendliest of tones, I felt beyond humbled, and suddenly, very very American.
The days previous, I had been working in Switzerland, where my clients spoke English with a lilting accent and would pause to translate the rapid fire jokes and slang that naturally occurred with meetings. My client, who is French, has hinted more than once that he would like me to learn the language, and so I have taken a few classes so we may exchange morning courtesies.
And this, is the reason behind my chagrin; I’m learning French. But my repertoire is severely limited to the usual suspects. I can say three different ways to greet a friend (salut), “how are you” for either formal and informal usage, thank you (merci), please (s’il vous plaît), goodbye (au revoir), yes (oui) and no (non). And of course, parlez-vous anglais (do you speak english)? Alas, this is insufficient for a visit to France by yourself.
So, after two days of fumbling about with my phrase book and leaning on the patient indulgences for an obviously American woman who is trying not to speak English, I concede the following:
French is tough.
I need more practice. The benefits of taking a trip where you must use the language is that you quickly get beyond the hesitancy and fear of pronouncing something poorly to simply wanting to communicate. Necessity breeds invention. Or in this case, necessity creates opportunity. (Pro-tip: never underestimate how hand gestures and hand-drawn images can help augment a conversation!)
Key phrases are gold.
Get beyond the basics of hello and goodbye to phrases you’ll actually use the most often.
Even if I had to pause and flip through my book with an uncertain but hopeful expression, I found myself returning to these throughout the day.
Je suis ici pour les vacances / le travail (I am here for vacation / work)
Je viens des USA (I am from USA)
Je m’appelle … (My name is …)
C’est combien? (How much is it?)
Oú sont les …? (Where are the …?)
Comment y aller? (How do I get there?)
Laugh and learn.
While my pronunciation is terrible to the French ear (as my client may attest), I laughed at myself as often as they did, as the amusement they expressed was often followed by helpful attempts to correct my speech. As the hours passed, I could recognize (and embrace) the tale-tell signs that scream “American” (rolled up pant cuffs, constant use of sunglasses, the tendency to let the shop keeper pick through an offering of cash and coin for my purchases) and smiled with good humor regardless of how often I had to say pardon, je ne comprends pas (I’m sorry, I don’t understand).