We were six women in search of adventure, ready to leave our Midwestern lives behind for 10 days in Paris – strolling the Seine, savoring boeuf bourguignon, and soaking in the city from atop the Eiffel Tower. It only took a few days until we were reminded just how American we were. The message: We should have taken the time to learn to parlez francais.
Though we had just come off an eight-hour flight and all had stiff backs from sleeping upright, we were ready to explore. My mother was interested in heading to the MarchÃ© aux Puces flea market, (I know what you are thinking: These women just arrived in Paris and they want to shop for used goods!) so we took our first Metro ride. Everything went relatively smoothly. We bought one-trip tickets and did the same for the way back. The next day we took the train to Fontainebleau, about 35 miles outside of Paris. It was a grand town of open-air markets whose centerpiece was the amazing 16th-century Chateau de Fontainebleau, built as a weekend getaway for France’s kings. This outing had not required a lot of time on the Metro, but the rest of our trip would require many rides.
Knowing we would go through Metro tickets like M&Ms, we decided to buy weekly passes. On our way to the Louvre for a visit with the Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa, we stopped at the ticket counter and told an uninterested ticket seller we needed Metro passes. With the little English she knew, the woman mumbled, “Need pitures.” Assuming she wanted our identification, the four women in our group pulled out their driver’s licenses.
The worker scrunched up her face and said, with obvious irritation, “No! Need pitures,” and pointed behind us. In a little corner by the entrance was a photo booth, the kind you find here in movie theaters and places like Dave & Buster’s. OK, we’d have some new pictures taken, but things only got worse from there.
My mom’s friend, Kathy, went in first. Suddenly, we could hear giggles coming from inside the booth. Kathy finally stuck her head out from behind the curtain and exclaimed, “It’s all in French!” We had assumed that because America and France had this little booth in common, it would be easy to operate. We somehow forgot we were no longer in Ohio, so Kathy was totally unprepared when the machine began barking orders in French. She eventually realized that the booth also contained visual instructions, universal icons that translated the French into understandable instructions:
1. No sunglasses. No hats.
2. If a child needs a picture taken the child must sit by him or herself.
3. Long hair has to be down and tucked behind ears.
4. No smiling.
Once we understood all the rules, we took turns having our photos taken, but there was more confusion to come. When mine came out of the slot, my mother was startled to see that we received four copies. “They all look the same,” she blurted, which brought gales of laughter from us and stares from people nearby who couldn’t figure out what this group of crazy American women found so funny. I’m not sure either, except to say that we felt so helpless and stupid at our inability to speak French and laughing at ourselves seemed the only thing to do.
We all learned a lesson that day and vowed that the next time we took an international trip we would take the time to include a few language exercises in our preparations.
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