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The funny side of language barriers

I just love this story.I can't tell you how many times when I'm talking about my travels somebody says to me "But what about the language? How did you communicate?" and they always say it in an expression like it would simply be the end of the world if I couldn't communicate with someone.

Sometimes, the struggle is half the fun.

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When chatting to Jacqueline about how she started traveling solo, she mentioned the below story, which I think is all too similar to so many others reasons... A real blessing in disguise.

"I traveled overseas for the first time in 2014. I was always waiting for the right time and for someone to join me, but it was never working out. I was planning this trip with my cousin, and then he decided to back out because he didn't think he could save enough money. I was devastated, thinking that I would have to put it off until someone else could come with me. Then I realised that I couldn't keep putting it off. If I was going to travel, I just had to go. So I booked my flights so I couldn't change my mind and I went. It was amazing!

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My first solo trip overseas ended in the city that held a lot of expectations and high hopes for me – Paris. It was the city that I would always dream of living in, with that view of “the grass is always greener on the other side”, and I expected to fall head over heels in love with it. I had been told that I would be disappointed. That Paris was dirty and the French were rude and wouldn’t want to speak to me unless I spoke perfect French to them. I’m sure you know someone with that kind of generalist impression of Paris.

My impression, however, was one that I did not expect to have and was the complete opposite of what I had been told. I did fall in love with Paris, but not because it was the perfect, magical place that I expected it to be. Because Paris has great humour.

On the second last day of my trip, I was starting to feel really homesick. It was a Monday and a lot of places in the city were closed down, which I didn’t realise would happen and hadn’t planned for it. I thought I would go see the Palace of Versailles that day, but it was closed. Then I took the Metro to Musée d'Orsay and found that was closed, too. I had no idea what to do. After wandering the streets – which is a must in Paris – I found a discounted ticket booth where I was able to get a ticket to the Opera (The Magic Flute) that day.

On my way to the Opera House, I came upon a Ladurée shop. This one was near the Madeleine Metro Station and is far quieter than any of the main stores, so make sure you skip the one on Avenue des Champs-Élysées and go straight there. I had my box of macarons in a few minutes and headed over to the Opera House.

I took a seat on the stairs to eat my macarons and watch the scene of the city street. There was a man leaning against the façade who kept looking over at me. I was starting to feel a little self-conscious as I ate. Eventually, he started talking to me in French. I only know the very basics, so I had no idea what he was saying to me.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging guiltily, “I don’t speak French.”

“Ah,” he said. “No French?”

“No.”

“English?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “Hmm… Dutch?”

“No, sorry.”

“Okay.”

That was the end of the conversation – or so I thought.

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He continued to watch me and I started to feel like I was a foreign specimen on display for all to see. By now, another man had taken a seat on the stairs beside me, so there was no way for anyone to get past me. An older lady walked up the stairs towards us and started saying, “Excusez-moi, monsieur, madame…” She continued talking in French but the rest was lost on me.

Having no idea what she had said and realising that we were blocking the way up the stairs, I assumed that she was just asking for someone to move aside so she could get through. So, I stood up and moved out of the way for her.

“Oh, non, non, non…” she started, waving her hand.

She continued talking as she sat down on the stairs beside the man, making room for me to return to my spot. She had only been asking for us to move over to make room for her to join us. I sat back down and continued eating my macarons, while she pulled out a book to start reading. Meanwhile, the man who had tried to talk to me was watching with a very amused smile.

The lady started talking to me again, in French, so I looked over to the man for help. He kindly turned to the lady and, I assume, explained to her that I didn’t understand French.

“English?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Ah, well, us French know that Ladurée make the best macarons in the world,” she said, proudly.

“Oui,” I spoke the little French I knew. “D’accord!”

“Oh, you know. Good,” she said, and returned to her book.

By now, the man’s wife had joined him and was also watching me with a very amused smile. I assumed that he must’ve briefed her on the situation and decided to stay for the foreign display. The man moved away from his spot and stood directly in front of me. He gestured upwards with his hand, as though indicating that he would like to get through and I was in the way. I, of course, stood up and moved out of the way for him. He had a big smile as he walked up the stairs and took my now free spot. He laughed in a “aren’t I hilarious?” kind of way, and then stood back up and gestured for me to take my spot again. I laughed and sat back down.

Macarons finished and the show about to start, I stood up to go inside to the Opera House. I smiled at the couple as I walked past them and the woman said, “Have a nice day!”

This was the kind of humour that I found most of the French had. It was teasing but kind and all in good fun. This situation taught me that you can have good interactions with people even when there are language barriers, that humour is universal, and that you have to be able to laugh at yourself. I could have felt mortified in that situation and frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t speak or understand French. Instead, I felt good for the little interaction I did have with strangers and that I was able to make people smile, myself included. It was something that I wouldn’t have experienced if I wasn’t there alone.

I will always love my hilarious, macaron-eating moment on the steps of the Opera House in Paris.

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1 Comment

  1. HAHAHA!!! That’s brilliant. I once had an entire conversation about my pet cat and a Dutch lady’s pet dog- all the while she spoke Dutch, I spoke English and most of the talk was photo swapping and squealing.
    “Crazy Pet Lady” is a universal language… 😛

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