French to try being nice As we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, my ex-pat seatmate turned to me for one last chat. "Do you want to know the secret to getting along in Paris?" Of course. "Everyone speaks English, but don't assume they do. First, ask if they speak English - and ask that question in French. Parlez vouz Anglais?"
That worked. Amazingly well, actually. I stopped strangers on the street and asked directions back to the Latin Quarter (for a global traveler, I'm pretty bad at navigating). Not once did I get sneered at, or turned down. "Yes" was the answer I heard, and everyone took the time to help the American.
Well, once, I heard "No." During the workshop I was there to help facilitate, someone walked in two hours late. As we had already broken into groups, who were engaged in fairly intense conversation, I wanted to help our newcomer catch up. "Excuse me, parlez vous Anglais?" Perhaps because I started the question in English, I heard "Non!" Ok, I walked away. But not far.
"Uh.. why?" "Excuse me?" "Why you ask me about English?" "I was just going to catch you up on what you missed, so you wouldn't feel left out of the conversation." "Oh. Go ahead then."
And so that ended pleasantly. Much more pleasantly than the conversation years earlier with a French citizen during a World Bank party. Someone paired us in conversation, introducing me by telling the gentleman my last name as if it would be of great interest to him.
"This is not a French name!" "Ok, and, hello." "I mean, this is silly. There is no one in France with the name of Bordeaux. It would be as if someone in your country were named, eh, Jimmy Chicago. This does not happen. You are Canadian." "Well, great meeting you, but I'd rather be over on the other side of the room now."
While I have often thought "Jimmy Chicago" would be a great pseudonym, the fact is I'm not Canadian either. But that is a tale for another day.