Sunday, June 15, 2014

How did I survive Paris - the people and their language

All my life I have been fascinated by the idea of staying in a foreign country and experience their culture. I guess I was granted this opportunity last August. I had been sent to Paris, France for a 3-month-assignment.

The biggest challenge I found was understanding the people, and making them understand me - obviously not all of them could speak English.

The most important phrase, to me, is not "bonjour" or "merci". Nor it is "bonne soirée", that is my favourite word instead - something I muttered everyday when it is time to be released from the office. The most important phrase - so important that it involves the matter of life and death - is, "beaucoup sauce s'il vous plaît". That was something I had to say everyday during lunch in the office canteen.

My colleagues who worked in the same project are very nice and friendly people. Some are Venezuelan. One of them told me she had been working in Paris for 6 - 7 years and married to a Parisian. Like me, she was really excited when she first started working in Paris. And traveled almost every weekend. So she could totally understand how I felt - wanting to see and experience as much as possible.

However some Parisian can be really "unbelievable". My first culture shock was on the first day that I arrived to the office. At the lobby we were registered as visitors with a temporary access card, and were told to obtain a permanent one from the administration department. So we took the elevator to the administration floor and apparently we were not able to access the secured gate with our temporary card. We knocked on the glass door to attract the attention of a lady (obviously French) sitting near the entrance. With sign language we tried to tell her we couldn't enter and would she please open the door for us. Perhaps it wasn't obvious to her that three foreign, yellow-skin noobs were seeking help - she took one look at us and continued to her business. I watched in disbelief as she went on typing on her keyboard. My two other colleagues gave me the get-used-to-it-if-you-want-to-survive look (it wasn't their first time in Paris), and turned to the other entrance.

At the other entrance, we did the same trick and this time it worked. The plump lady (also obviously French) let us in. I gratefully thought the world is still beautiful after all. We said thank you and this was what she replied us:

"No English, please!"

When I told my friends this story, CA suggested that I speak Bahasa Melayu to her. And she'd be too frustrated and switched to English herself. But Feeder said given his experience in France, she'd just ignore me. I couldn't agree more.

Had I been treated like this the whole time in Paris? Of course not. Like any other places, there were both good and bad people. The universe always had to keep its balance, didn't it? 

So Feeder and I were near to the Palais Garnier, trying to find our way to Galeries Lafayette. We knew Paris was not a safe place. Hence even when studying the map we were keeping a lookout. Two ladies approached us, told us in English that a few pickpockets were right behind them, about to reach. They only target tourists and obviously we looked like one. They would come ask for donation with a piece of paper appearing to be list of donors as distractions. Do not talk to them - just wave our hands and get them going. We thanked the kind ladies for their warning and was being even more cautious. A minute later a cute guy nice gentleman in suit and tie approached us with the same warning. Wow! Two good deeds in a row! I was rather surprised.

Inside of Palais Garnier.

Another time we were in Dinan, an outskirt town 400 km away from Paris. Again I was studying the map (that's what tourists do). A lady came pointed at the map and said "Vous êtes ici", to which I replied "Merci".

The old medieval town of Dinan.

A similar experience when Nicole and I were looking for the China Town near Place d'Italie (we were craving for char siew and roasted pork). A guy who looked like a gangster gentleman came throwing us sentences in French, which I could catch only one word - "adresse". Obviously he was asking us if we had the address so he could point us the right direction. He performed sign language when I said "China town". Another good deed gratefully accepted.

So, did I enjoy Paris? Yes.
Am I willing to stay there again given the chance? Yes.
Am I willing to stay there for long term (more than a year)? No.

I guess Paris did not live up to my expectations. It was not a city of romance, no! There were always people kissing and making out on the street but city of romance? Definitely not what I had in mind. At least I didn't feel anything when I was travelling with Feeder.
Paris. Is. Overrated.

It's not very convenient when you can't speak French. And the people, no offence but they're not very... patient and considerate. And the weather, towards the end and beginning of the year, was getting freezing cold.

I guess I can give a lot of excuses for not wanting a long stay in Paris. But then it all comes down to one reason.
Do I love Paris? No.


David Batista said...

I love Paris, but I only visit for one or two weeks. If I had to stay there for 3 months or longer, it would be a nightmare. All problems stem from the language, I feel. If you know you're going to be living there for YEARS, then obviously learning French is a must. But if you are only going to be there for a temporary stay, and you don't already speak the language, then I can see why the experience would be very difficult. Before I went to Paris for the first time, I spent 3 months prior learning as many French words and phrases as I could manage. While I was in no way even close to being proficient, I found that some of the choice phrases I had memorized really helped me out in many situations.

Honestly, Parisians really HATE if you suddenly speak English to them out of the blue. That's been my experience. It's better if you say hello to them in French first, then follow up with: "Excusez-moi, parlez vous Anglais?" This one phrase alone helped me out so much! Often, a French person was more than happy to help me out after I started off the conversation this way--even if they didn't speak English themselves.

I can't speak about the map thing. I memorized the map of most of the central districts in Paris before I went. Again, I had around 3 months to accomplish this, and I was quite obsessed with memorizing directions. But also, I used digital maps on my phone a lot while there. This way, it would look like I was just checking my phone for text messages when in fact I was looking up street names and directions! :) I never used a paper map that would identify me as a tourist, so I never had the same concerns of being targeted by pickpockets.

I wish you had been able to visit on vacation for 7 to 10 days or so, rather than as part of a work assignment for 3 months. I feel you would have had more fun if your trip was for pleasure and for a much shorter duration. Too bad it couldn't have been to London or even to my city, New York! At least English is spoken at both. :)

thE gEOgrAphicAlly blind said...

"Parlez vous Anglais?" That's a good suggestion. Perhaps I made a mistake by assuming that most people could speak simple English. That is definitely not always the case. Thanks for the tip! Next time, I want to go to other parts of France. :)