Thursday, March 10, 2011


Being a language teacher, I should be good at foreign languages, one would think. I’ve lived nearly half my life in non-English speaking countries and have visited countless more – surely I’d pick up languages easily, right?

Wrong. I’m hopeless. But, being a language teacher, I generally manage to communicate pretty well, even if I have little or no common language with my interlocutor. As long as everyone is willing to try, I usually do all right.

So I’ve been in France for the past few days, and struggling along with bits of the language, but even when I thought I was doing all right with the words, the communication hasn’t always been there. For example, when the hotel clerk told me that getting to Montparnasse was “Tres easy. A few minutes by metro,” it was logical for me to think ‘a few minutes’ was 10 or 15, wasn’t it? When I got there 40 minutes later and 10 minutes after my train had left, I looked around at the vast number of confusing directional signs and managed to follow one that seemed to point to the information window. “Bon Jour, Madame” says I “Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu,” quoth she. Oh good. So I started speaking, then realized a few seconds later that I was not actually communicating anything to her. So I tried again. I pointed to my reservation time, made a sad face, and shrugged a Gallic “what to do?” shrug at her. She understood, and fixed me up with the next train to Bordeaux. “Merci.”

From Bordeaux, I had to catch the 16:14 to Tonneins, an hour down the line. This meant another ticket. Following signs similar to the ones that had worked for me at Montparnasse, I dragged my suitcase up a flight of stairs and found another clerk in another window. “Bon Jour, Madame. Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu”. Uh-huh. Here we go again. This one spoke enough English to tell me it was not her desk. I must go “Left, and how you say? Under?” “Downstairs?” “Oui, don der stairs for billet.” “Merci.”

So I dragged the suitcase back down the flight of stairs I had just dragged it up and looked for “billet”. Found an arrow. Went that way. Dead end. Went back. Saw another sign: “Information. Billet” in the other direction. Followed that. And found a machine. In French.

OK, I thought, I can do this. It’s logical. Ticket machines all work the same way. And indeed it did. Until I got to the payment part. Fifteen euro. Fine. Out comes my trusty Visa card, in it goes and I’m told to take it out again. OK. Then a violent stream of French words flashes across the screen and I’m told I have one minute (I think). For what? I quickly enter my PIN. Nothing. It bounces me back to the entry screen. No ticket. Did it charge my card? I wait for the telephone bleep from HSBC. Nothing. I try again. Same story. I try it in a different direction. Nope. I try my gold MC, and then my US Visa. Nothing. Great. Bloody machine won’t take my foreign credit cards. Merci.

Cash? Ha! Coins only. Who carries 15 euro around in change? I could not face dragging that suitcase back up the stairs to try to find some change, so I left the building and walked up the ramp and saw a little luncheonette across the street. Great. Maybe he’ll have change. “Bon jour, Monsieur. Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu.” Super. “I’m trying to buy a ticket in that machine but…” No communication here, either. So I get out my wallet and change purse, point to the station and myself and say “ I want to buy une billet, but…” “No, no. No billet” “Oui, oui – non! Ummmm….” Embarrassed giggle. Deep breath. On with the pantomime. I start pointing at the station: “Une billet pour moi. Machine pour billet. Oui. Euro fifteen -- quinze – But…” and I pulled out my charge cards “Etats Unis Visa – non! Etats unis MC –Non!” And I tugged my hair and made that frustrated growling sound you do. He laughed. I pulled out a ten and a five. “Euro quinze –non!” And then held up and shook my change purse “Euro quinze -- Oui!” And then spilled my measly three and a half euro in change onto his counter. “Euro trois.” Sad face, plus Gallic shrug; then breaking into English: “It only takes coins and I don’t have enough. Can you change this?” and I held up the bills with a bit more of that very useful sad face. He (and by now his buddies who had gathered around) grinned broadly at the lunatic, but took my bills and came back with a handful of coins. “Merci!! Merci monsieur, tres gentile – you are very kind.” And my suitcase and I trotted back to the station. I waved. “Merci!”

I poured my change into that foul, xenophobic ticket machine (and did an air punch, since I knew they were watching), grabbed my precious ticket, and proceeded to drag my bag back up the stairs to look for the train. I went past the first desk I’d asked at and learned yet again that language does not always mean communication, and “Un peu Anglais” should never be trusted. Because had I turned RIGHT out of the office instead of left, I would have eventually run smack into the main part of the station, with a lovely escalator to take me and my bag downstairs to a ticket plaza, complete with real people selling tickets from booths, two of which had British flags displayed in their windows – which is French for “I speak more English than just un peu.”



Blogger Julie said...

what is it with train stations? didn't we get misdirected in Tokyo?

But, I'm waiting for descriptions of the PASTRY.

And I know your French will be better by the end of your stay...

2:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FUNNY -- Sounds like communication "DAD 101". TM

2:33 PM  
Blogger Mme Cyn said...

Hey -- it GOT me there! ;^)

4:53 PM  

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