Bridge Across the Atlantic | My Family Travels
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Despite technology that makes our world smaller each day, it doesn’t take much to know that the U.S. and France are a world apart from each other. I know, because Americans seem to have the stereotypical notion cemented in their DNA that French people are rude, irritable, and unreasonable. I’m even sure some French people believe we are the same way. This knowledge has always been in the back of my mind, but one single experience in Paris made me bring it out into the open, for me to scrutinize it and ponder its existence.

 

I traveled to France through a travel company called ACIS with 26 of my fellow students. One night in Paris, everyone was allowed to find their own dinner. For the first time, we could wander free of chaperones. I and four of my friends marched, arms linked, through the bustling alleys near the St. Michel fountain, hungry. Our mission: return to our teachers at the fountain in two hours, with stomachs satisfied. No sweat, right?

 

The stream of events that would become our doom began the moment we stepped into a restaurant.

 

Everyone in the restaurant instantaneously knew we were American tourists, and unfortunately it was blatantly obvious. People eyed us rudely every moment, and we felt their stares like an ailing fever. Our waiter smiled mockingly at us as we became confused over how to order from a set menu. While our two hour time limit was dissipating as fast as boiling steam, the amused waiter took his dandy time in serving us. I kind of wanted to cry, but the tears were buried deep in my face. Never had I felt more humiliated, victimized, and helpless.

 

So we reached for our last weapon, our lifeline, our emergency fire extinguisher.

 

It was the French language, those words that sound beautifully resonant, words you can’t replicate yourself and yet appeal exactly to your being’s complicated desires. It is the song you can’t sing along to, but you can hum its lovely melody. I signaled the waiter, then looked him in the face and started pouring out the best comprehendible French I could manage. I explained our side of the story in his language, and that proved to be the key. He smiled — not mockingly! — and soon led us downstairs so we could finally pay our bill and get out of that place. At last, the chasm was bridged, the distance between the two sides of the river was shortened. The everyday French citizens in that room, all of them, heard me speak the language they believed American tourists couldn’t possibly know. They became witnesses of a stereotype disproved. Thank goodness.

 

Everything else I saw in France seemed flawless. I crooned at the beautiful countryside that stretched between its cities, melted with my first taste of French-made baked Alaska, and laughed as I danced with French nuns on Easter Sunday. I promised myself I would return to France someday, and pretend just for a few minutes that it was my home.

 

But I will hold the restaurant catastrophe close in my mind, no matter how terrifying it was. Now I know why it’s necessary that we travel, move, make our own voyage. It’s our duty to bridge the gaps, gaps created by evil stereotypes and gaps that cause people to stare ruthlessly at people who appear different. Learning a country’s language is one of many ways to bridge those scary gaps. Language is a key that will unlock closed, prejudiced hearts; I discovered that it really is a key to peace.

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