In The Art of Travel, 3. Communicating, Paris by Zoe1 Comment

I confidently sauntered up to the counter at Miznon, a pita sandwich restaurant in Le Marais, menu in hand, and said, “Bonjour! Je voudrais un pitta avec l’agneau kebab, s’il vous plait.” (Hi! I would like a lamb pita, please). To which the man helping me replied, “Do you want any drinks with that?” In. English.

It’s a common thing Parisians do, answer back to you in English after you speak in French, regardless of how good you *think* your French is. The effort is appreciated but man, oh man, do I wish they would sometimes just go with it for the sake of my own communication insecurities. 

On the same coin, though, I’ve had experiences where I’ve ordered or talked to someone and they do, in fact, respond in French and they speak a mile a minute. It’s odd for me because while I can understand quite a bit of French, I can quite literally speak none aside from ordering and carrying on a simple conversation. I guess that isn’t “none,” per se, but far less than I’d like to know. It’s confusing, this instilling of confidence in certain situations when language is practiced and in others, that installation is not there.Désolé(sorry) has become a household term.

French is a language that is not difficult to fall in love with: it’s melodic and fantastically romantic. It’s hard, though, being in a city and not being proficient in their language. There’s a part of me that feels like a burden, an annoyance to them when I’m not able to communicate, especially when their answers come back to me in English. The French are generally nice about it but I feel insufficient. I try, though, I really do. That being said, there’s something a bit enlightening about the lack of communication. It makes you try harder to get your point across, be it just listening more intently to strangers or whipping out your phone and utilizing Google Translate. It isn’t easy, and I admittedly do like enjoy the difficulty. 

Not only that, but quite different gestures than those we have in the United States are relatively common here. The French don’t speak with their hands and bodies as much as say, Italians, but there are a plethora of fun-looking movements. There is, of course, the double — or quadruple — cheek kiss. After getting over the initial lack of comfort of kissing strangers, it’s actually a pretty enjoyable way of greeting someone. I’ve been learning that social queues and ways of communicating beyond verbal queues set me apart as a foreigner even more than my American accent. Body language and said gestures can be as important, if not more, especially when the linguistic segment of a language is not shared. 

But until I become more familiar, my broken French and a smile are going to have to do.

(Image: Communication? Quoi? ; Source: Princeton Alumni Weekly / iStock)


  1. Zoe, I love how you speak to the customs surrounding body movement and action as a form of language–specifically one that you are learning and studying as you collect experiences in Paris. I also appreciate how you observe this side of Parisian communication as the area in which you are most visible as a foreigner. I have been thinking often about what people want when they travel to a new place–to stick out or to blend in? Where some may want to seamlessly fit into the vibration of a city or cultural population, there are those who would rather gather strength from a sense of uniqueness or from finding solace in the out-group. I continue to wonder where language lies in this conversation. Perhaps this is the way uniqueness fails then, because lack of language seems to quite simply keep you on the outside. I myself have found my tendency here in Berlin to be one of merger. I find myself attempting to assume the mannerisms of Berliners. (I try to stay quiet on public transportation, I pretend to love their tap water, etc.). It seems to me that you are placing yourself within the same challenge. I hope that as we continue to gather experiences in our respective sites abroad, that we might be able to become closer to members of the in-group versus the out-group.

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