Connecting via social media reminded me of my trip to France and my French social work colleagues who were extraordinarily kind and hospitable. It was in Paris where I experienced the dangers of not speaking the language!
On the 2pm train from Zurich to Paris, a young woman spoke to me in French (of course) so I smiled at her and moved from the window seat to my own in the aisle. Unfortunately, changing seats didn’t have the desired effect. The poor woman, obviously frustrated, increased her volume and her French became more rapid. It seems I respond to language barriers with a blank expression and an inability to speak. At this point appalled by my stupidity, she began yelling bebe, bebe. That didn’t work so she added gestures to the conversation patting her belly. “Oh you’re pregnant” I said wisely. She shook her head and the volume increased. She pointed at me. “No I’m not pregnant” I said. Finally, a man in uniform arrived and in eleven English words fixed the problem. “She has a baby and prefers to sit in the aisle”. I moved to the window with relief while the woman retrieved her very cute but sick, restless and teething child from somewhere in the train.
In the next few weeks I was almost arrested in the Louvre for mistaking an exit for an entrance; accidentally blinded a medium sized child while trying to photograph the Mona Lisa (always check your flash is off); was chased in the Metro by a small crowd trying to return the scarf I had dropped; repeatedly alarmed taxi drivers by sitting in the driver’s seat; and basically said merci or oui in response to whatever was said to me. I caused much amusement at the Armee du Salut men’s hostel when I arrived with my suitcase to attend the French CIF (Council of International Fellowship) social workers’ meeting (not to stay!). I thought I was looking for a café not a men’s hostel. I didn’t know at the time that l’Armée du Salut meant the Salvation Army though it seems pretty obvious now. I got hopelessly lost trying to find the red line in the Metro. Due to a French compulsion for asking directions, I learned very quickly how to say in French that I don’t speak French. Getting lost is an art form in Paris. I certainly mastered the art of endlessly walking round and round the Arc de Triomphe looking for the street that led to the hotel, but that’s another story.
Even leaving Paris was memorable. At Charles de Gaulle airport, an eighty-seven year old war veteran kept me engaged in French conversation and mime. He regaled every passer-by with what I am sure was ribald commentary. He was going to hospital to have surgery for his knee or heart – I couldn’t decide – maybe it was both. A picnic of cheeses, sausage, baguette and what looked like red wine was laid out beside him. The old man was suspicious of rules and regulations. He winked, held up his half eaten baguette and slid out a knife from its centre. He winked again and returned it to its hiding place. He needed it for his cheese. He somehow managed to convey that he would not travel with luggage as he preferred to keep his valuable close. Customs were not to be trusted. His pyjamas, x-rays and
hospital letters were in a hard covered briefcase which he invited me to inspect. He winked, pointed to his case, tapped his chest and said ‘diplomat’. He laughed, winked again, pointed to the case and went ‘boom’ and laughed again. (Don’t be alarmed, he was joking).
The best thing in Paris when you are hot is the Colonel – lime sorbet in vodka. The police, ambulance and firefighters like to make a lot, and I mean a lot of noise. Parisians are thin because they walk so much – don’t believe anything else. People strip to their swimsuits on the riverbank of old Paris at the first hint of sun. There are plaques on the buildings and schools.that tell how many Jewish adults and children were taken during World War II and describe how it happened. The people are kind, friendly and helpful. Paris is amazing…and of course so are French social workers.