“Le Mot Just” – Just the Right Word – Eases French Travel
Battling in French with the hotel manger, I quickly glanced past his red face, through tall windows, to an inky blue sky, bright full moon and the shimmering, blinking Eiffel Tower. I had requested a yogurt for breakfast, and an extra pillow for nights. The manager brusquely informed me that these items were absolutely impossible to obtain.
Paris is, all at once, splendid and exasperating. Gold statues, 2000 years of history, and pastries almost too exquisite to eat are intimately interwoven with intense interpersonal rudeness. However, French attitudes can soften with a few choice words, carefully placed. Whether you are traveling with Elder Hostel or are on your own, whether you speak French or not, consider the following.
- Do not take uncivil behaviors personally. Sometimes, it is best to agree. As Dominique Brémond, Director of the language school, The French Class, explains, “Although I was born and raised in France, I was shocked at the brusque response I received, just off plane, in Paris. My attempt to buy postcards with a charge card was denied because ‘the purchase was too small.’ I knew this was against the law, but I decided to go along rather than argue. I looked for a book to increase the purchase”.
Even if you do not speak French, politeness goes a long way. Whenever you enter a store, even just to browse, or ask a hotel manager for something, greet them first. Say “Bonjour Madame! Or Bonjour Monsieur!” Next say “I would like… a coffee or a pillow, rather than “I want…!” (say “Je voudrais” rather than “Je veux”). “I would like” is respectful; “I want” is an order or put down. When you are finished, say Merci (thank you), smile, then say Au-Revoir (good bye)” as you leave.
Additionally, as icing on the cake, just before your request, add “Excusez-moi de vous déranger” — which means “excuse me for bothering you”.
- A trickier approach involves not directly stating your opinion or request, but planting your idea in the other’s mind. This works especially well when women make requests of men. Our trip’s French male driver was an aficionado of race course classes and preferred to drive very fast. Rather that yell “Slow down, you are going to kill me!,” it was better to make subtle comments on the rainy weather, and how much skill it takes to drive on narrow roads at night. Rather than feeling insulted, the driver then decides to slow down and show off his wet-weather night driving skills.
- Do not make outrageous requests, especially when receiving French hospitality in a private home or on a small group tour. Before your trip, check to see if your daily habits will fit with the group’s. Take a different trip if there are no similarities. Finally, if you don’t like what is served at meals, live with it!
French cuisine includes meats and cheese at most meals. During our first elegant yet comfortable meal, a vegetarian declared she did not like the cheese, nor the vegetables served… and noisily left the table to dig up a day old, flattened cheese sandwich from her backpack. Beaming, she gobbled down this enormous sandwich in the glow of soft candlelight.