Tiresome Tourists

October 18, 2006 at 3:37 pm | Posted in food, vie quotidienne | 15 Comments

A few minutes ago, I decided to dash down to the corner bakery to get a baguette for my lunch. Of course, it being lunch time, there was a huge line. And up at the front of the line was a girl, about my age, trying to order in English.

Okay, lest I sound entirely unsympathetic to the monolingual, one really doesn’t need to know a whole lot of French to order in a bakery. Une baguette is really all you need to say, and you can add s’il vous plait if you want to be treated nicely. Even if you want to order something a little more complicated — a religieuse au cafe, say, or a tartelette aux abricots — everything is labeled. Just sound it out as best you can while pointing, and you should be able to convey your desire.

But this girl was not employing this technique. Instead, she launched into complete English sentences (“Give me one of those over there, and would you mind heating that?”), as if she expected every boulangère in Paris to be perfectly fluent in English!

But that wasn’t bad enough. Having gotten her pastry, this girl then asked the poor boulangère (in English, of course) where she might find the Catacombes. Although everyone tried to be helpful, no one had any idea what she was talking about (the man behind her in line helpfully suggested, “France télécom?”). All I could do was cringe.

I have very little patience for tourists who don’t even make a small effort to speak a word or two of the local language, but I have even less patience for stalled bakery lines when I am starving. Even though I knew it would mean revealing my secret identity as an American, I stepped forward: “I can help you,” I told the girl in clear English, as I tried to apologize on her behalf to the crowd with my eyes.

I indicated that she should step outside with me (losing my place in line), and I pulled out my map, metro plan, and L’Officiel des Spectacles (I never leave home without them — she, on the other hand, didn’t have so much as a guide book). After a few seconds’ research, I gave her the address, the nearest metro stop, and pointed her in the right direction. She thanked me for my efforts, then complained, “No one around here has even heard of the catacombs.”

“They’ve heard of them,” I told her through clenched teeth. “They just can’t understand your accent.”

Luckily, I was rewarded for this trial by lunch, which has put me in a much better mood:

saucisson sec



  1. I’ve done the catacombs. V. spooky. V. neat.

  2. I agree it was creepy at first, but… Well, it’s an awfully long walk down there. By the time we got to the end, we were completely blasé about the whole thing. Like, “femur, femur, skull, fibula… yawn!”

  3. I’ve never been to the catacombs. I have, however, helped the occasional clueless tourist. 😉

  4. I had the experience in France with German tourists that they would hear their accents and start speaking English to them… admittedly, the English of some of the shopkeepers was worse than my French, but whatever. Anyhow, the Germans couldn’t understand less than perfect English and got so horribly confused that I had to act as a translator from bad English into German and back from German into mediocre French.

    It was exhausting.

    This story had no real point. I just like commenting in your blog. Yep.

  5. Sonja – I liked your story.

    I’ve seen similar things happen, though never experienced it myself, probably because my German is limited to counting to ten and ordering a Wiener Schnitzel.

  6. Oh, I’m hopeless in German, and I’m ashamed to say that when I was in Germany with my boyfriend last February, I unfortunately couldn’t get much out in the way of spoken words either, because I didn’t have enough confidence to pronounce the few words I knew. And I figured he could cover for me — he speaks German just fine!

    But I, like you Amy, do get frustrated with the tourists who don’t make the slightest effort to at least speak the basics here in Paris — that’s why people get so frustrated with them! — but I guess that makes me a hypocrite, n’est-ce pas ? Ha, ha… No, basically I know it means I need to learn some other languages too, but they all overwhelm me so much! One language at a time, just ONE! (so I’ll just plan on pulling out the basics book in each country I visit…)

  7. Alice –

    I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy in what you said. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your mouth shut when you can’t speak the language. I just hate it when people launch into complex English sentences, as if the whole world should work extra hard to make *their* lives a little easier. (I also suspect that these are the same people who complain about immigrants to America, “Why can’t they just speak English?” Talk about hypocrisy!)

    When I’m in a country where I don’t know the language, I try to at least learn thank you, please, hello, and such like… even though these words are useless for conveying meaning, they will buy you a ton of goodwill.

  8. Oooooh, that makes me so angry! That kind of attitude just reinforces the whole ignorant English speaker stereotype. I think the least a visitor can do is learn the rudimentary ‘hello’ ‘thankyou’ ‘please may I have…’ etc. before they even set foot in a foreign country.
    However, it does frustrate me when I speak French and receive a reply in English. Grr! It becomes a kind of, I’m not going to give in game…which inevitably sees me backing down first.

  9. embrouillamini –
    Ooh, I hate that! It actually happened to me last weekend: I went to sunday market to get a roast chicken, which I requested in polite French. Then the chicken guy answered me in English! “Cheekeen? Cheekeen?”

    I was so furious and humiliated, I couldn’t even say anything. Then he said, “Feenish? Feenish?” I just stared blankly at him. Finally, he switched back: “Finis? C’est tout?”

    “Oui, Monsieur,” I answered indignantly. “Merci.”

    Then I got home to discover that he screwed up my order. God only knows what he thought I said.

  10. That’s partially why I don’t want to go to any other country (by myself) where I don’t know the language. I only know enough French to order stuff in bakeries. Poorly. >__

  11. Robyn –
    I think you can get away with speaking English in a lot of places, as long as you’re willing to speak slowly, clearly, and stick to monosyllables. Better yet is to restrict yourself to one word requests: Bread? Toilet? Hotel? Museum? I think that goes a lot further than expecting people to understand full sentences, like “Excuse me, sir, could you possibly point me to the nearest hotel? And not too expensive, either, I’m on a budget.”

  12. I feel so embarrassed to call myself American when I see some of the horrorific things tourists do here. It seems as though some people resent that fact that the entire world is not homogenized, and traveling means leaving behind some of the comforts of home.

  13. This blog expresses everything I have always thought and bitched about. As far as feeling humiliated when someone replies to you in English when you make an effort to speak their language, I’ve been there. It leaves you with an indelible feeling of inadequacy. I lived in Sweden for over a year, and I made it my mission to get fluent in the language. I actually have a prior knowledge of Swedish before I got there, but when I did, I discovered it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. But after a year of watching English TV with Swedish subtitles, talking to Swedes, listening to them talk amongst themselves and to me I finally started getting fluent. Whenever I’m in Sweden or Norway, or amongst Scandinavians abroad, I now launch into Swedish with confidence.

    If you stick to your guns, you’ll find that people reply in English less and less. Here in Poland, where I now live with my girlfriend, I don’t have a choice but to learn Polish. I was however surprised by the man in the kiosk who sold me my tram ticket this morning who said ‘One seventy’, when I asked for a ‘biljet normalny, prosze’ Most locals are monolingual, so I have to. I try to speak as much as I can, and if I can’t say something in Polish, I’m very, very hesitant to say much in English, and try to stick to the one word thing. Or if someone says something you don’t understand, just say ‘Przepraszam, nie razumiem.’ I’ve only just started learning it systematically with a textbook that my girlfriend got me, but I’ve found that all the ‘teach yourself’ books in the world do nothing for you if you don’t throw yourself in the deep end and use what you know and build on it, listen to people talk, talk to them, make a million mistakes, and learn from them. My girlfriend’s mother doesn’t speak a word of English so I have to use Polish, or the little I know. I have my work cut out learning, because the Slavic languages are difficult, and Polish is the hardest of them all.

    And lapetit, don’t be embarrassed about Americans so much, I think the English are worse. Alot of them are so arrogant they’re not even interested in learning anything about the countries they go to. They’re only interested in going to a place where it’s warmer or for cheaper beer (in the case of Eastern Europe) and take England with them (ie, surround themselves with other English). Wankers they are! But there are exceptions to every generalisation and both extremes. Having said that the Americans I can understand because they’re handicapped by being isolated from other countries and cultures by and large and have a dodgy education system while being mired by pop-culture and consumerism. Not much better in my homeland (Australia) either, except the education system is a little better.

    I love your blog!

  14. Thanks for stopping by, Andrew. Good luck learning Polish.

  15. My pleasure. Learning French is on the radar for me. Je ‘aime pas la France! I was in Paris last October, where I met my Moroccan friend who I was living with in Uppsala. I stayed at the apartment that his parents own. He showed me around for the day, taught me the metro, then had to do errands the next day and was left to my own devices. I thought the whole loving Paris thing was cliche, just like the Prague fad, but I now know why. It’s fantastic. I don’t understand why the English or Anglophones in general always have a low opinion of the French. But wait, that’s just speaking figuaratively, its just their cultural insesitivity; they try to take Rome with them and expect the locals to do as they do; it’s supposed to be the other way round! I never had any problems with the snobbery thing. I have a German friend from Freiburg in the Black Forest, near the French border, and he said that if you’re a foreigner and speak French, they’re really friendly. I can concur with that, even with my limited French. He told me this analogy once: ‘There was a polyglot King in Europe a long time ago; he spoke Spanish to his lover, French in diplomacy, and German to his dog.’ As a German speaker, I have to agree with that; it’s more suited to the purpose of barking orders than wooing in romance! But somehow I still like the maculinity of the German language. Sometimes, I feel that, if presented with a choice, I would have learned French instead. I don’t know; I’m so tentative I sometimes confuse myself trying to get to the 20/20!

    Building on the topic of ‘taking England with you’, to the French traveller, on the other hand, the site and sound of a countryman is almost anathema to them. I like the French way better. I used to go out of my way to talk to Australians is I heard their accents, but now I almost avoid them like the plague.

    Sorry about the rant.

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