Erin Zaleski just did a big piece in The Daily Beast about how Paris is apparently depressing for many people who’ve fantasized about it. Some people even seek therapy there because they get so bummed out. Zaleski reported on depression, cultural alienation, and even madness. But something crucial was missing: any mention of trying to speak the language, which means as much to the French as the flag does to us Americans.
I had fantasized about Paris for decades before my first of many trips, and have never been depressed there. In fact, I’ve always found the city exhilarating, and that’s because I made an effort everywhere I went to speak French (and was complimented for it).
Now, I did start with an advantage. I had studied French for eight years and was my high school’s star French student. It took me a long time to get to France, though, and along the way I read dozens of books about the French, French history and culture, and Paris in particular. When I finally made it to Paris, people wondered where I had learned to speak French, because I didn’t sound American. But more importantly, if a conversation ensued, they’d share their surprise that an American spoke French at all and raise this question: how could anyone expect to fully enjoy their culture without at least trying?
Time after time on various trips I was embarrassed by Americans around me who hadn’t bothered to learn travel basics and shouted their questions in English. You don’t need eight years of French or a large vocabulary to ask directions and understand them, find a bathroom, order a meal, get a Metro ticket, or navigate a museum. But you do need to try, you do need to care, you do need to let go of American arrogance and the assumption that everyone in the world should speak English.
One night I met a businessman on a dinner cruise along the Seine who traveled to Paris frequently but didn’t speak a word of French. He started talking to me because he heard me shift to French with the waiter and back to English with my spouse and he asked me for help with his waiter. He had complaints about Paris, and Parisians, who apparently weren’t trying hard enough to understand him. He didn’t want to be met halfway, he wanted surrender.
Later that evening, standing at the rails, I was overflowing with joy and murmured, C’est beau comme un rêve. It truly was as beautiful as a dream. An elderly couple nearby overheard me and asked where I was from, and we spent a good half hour chatting about the city. Did I make mistakes? Definitely. Did they correct my French? Absolutely. I was grateful for the instruction, and every correction rooted me more deeply in the experience of being there.