One simple joy of speaking the language of the country you are traveling in, is to speak it well enough to be accepted as a “native”. It is a lot of fun to conduct transactions and conversations without getting the raised eyebrows that say, “Oh, my, what are you trying to tell me.”
I enjoyed practicing with shopkeepers, sales persons, and waiters. When I could “fool” them, ot at least mystify them, I counted the conversation as a big “win.”
When we lived in France, a favorite time to practice French was when I shopped at the outdoor markets in Paris. This was doubly fun because some of the sellers themselves spoke French as a second language, which challenged me to understand them and them to know what I wanted. They were much less likely to “catch” me than were the native French sellers.
For months, I had purchased the majority of my produce from a French woman who wore an apron, worn outdoor shoes, and a straw hat with a flower. I have no idea whether she lived on a farm or simply donned that attire to appear as a woman who knew her produce well.
In case you have never learned a foreign language, here is a bit of background information. In English, all nouns are neutral – the woman, the man, the carrot, the broccoli, the rabbit, the rose – “the” is the article in front of each noun. But, in French, all nouns are either “feminine” or “masculine.” The article differs, either “le” (masculine) or “la” (feminine). And the article changes when the noun is plural – “les.”
Without getting into a grammar session here, in many foreign languages, the adjectives also match gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural). In French, there is “la carrotte” – the carrot – and “les carrottes” – the carrots. The beautiful carrot is “la belle carrotte”, beautiful carrots are “les belles carrottes.” The beautiful male dog is “le beau chien” or, plural, “les beaux chiens.”
This was where the trap lay. With hundreds of fruits and vegetables to memorize, it was challenging to remember the gender of the ones less frequently seen at the market. Raspberry was easy – “la framboise.” But quince? Or white turnip? Ah, the potential pitfalls.
For about six months, at two transactions a week, I had successfully purchased a wide selection of produce from Mrs. Straw Hat with Flower. Knowing when I would come to shop, she often set aside particular choices she knew I would like – chard, a variety of lettuce, or even small strawberries.
And then came the fall day when many new varieties were displayed on her long table, including even pickling cucumbers. As I gave her my order, her jaw dropped and her eyes opened wide. “Vous n’êtes pas française.”
“Mais, non,” I replied, “je suis américaine.” (“But no, I am Americain.”)
“Mais vous parlez bien, bien. J’ai pensé que vous venez d’Alsace.” (But you speak well, well. I thought you came from Alsace.)
Alsace is on the German border and the French people there do speak with a different accept than do Parsians. But native speakers do know the genders of all their fruits and vegetables, no matter which part of France they come from!
We laughed together and, from that day on, she asked me the English word for each variety of produce. Alas, that was the end of my French practice sessions and I had to find another vendor with whom I could speak French. Once a native speaker found out I spoke English, they usually wanted to speak my language. Speaking English with them did not help me to fit in better in France.
In almost every encounter, the French were very patient with me and found kind, gentle ways to correct my mistakes. When you travel, dear reader, please speak in the language of the country you are in, even if it means using phrasebook. Speaking the language of the natives adds one more dimension to the trip. And, for us, we were often rewarded with a free glass of wine, basket of berries or simply a happy smile.
On the other side, twice a week I got off the Metro near the Arc de Triomphe near which I attended a business French class. Far too often, I heard loud American voices asking the newspaper seller, in English, for directions to a restaurant or a shop. He was not a tour guide and did not understand a word they said. At times, I might hear something like, “Hmmmpf, he certainly was not helpful, so typically French!” Well, yes, he probably became annoyed at getting “talked down to” day after day when he had no idea what people wanted. Now, if they had used a phrasebook…all parties may have learned something!