Steph and I visited Paris for the first time, with my sister Jill, in 1993. We were still in our early 20’s, had no money to speak of, and could only afford to go on the trip because my father lived in London, and he paid for us to come and visit. He also insisted that we go to Paris.
That first long-weekend trip to Paris kicked off a decades-long love affair with both Paris and France, and we’ve since done home swaps in France more than any other country. But it didn’t get off to a great start. It rained the entire time we were there. We ran out of money after our first real meal. And we couldn’t speak the language, not really.
We have a few stories from that trip, but the one that makes me smile every time involves a common misconception about the French and their supposed impoliteness and attitudes about foreigners. That this has become the first of many such experiences over the years has only increased our enjoyment of the country and its people.
But this was the first time.
We had been walking all day around a murky and raining Paris when Steph suddenly announced she had a headache. Finding a pharmacy wasn’t going to be a problem: In France, pharmacies are well-marked with neon-green signs. So we entered the first one we found. And came across an incredible scene.
Inside the pharmacy, a woman from California—we know this because she screamed it at one point—was yelling at the poor shopkeeper in English and getting louder and louder as he continued to not understand a word she was saying. Finally she blurted out at top volume, “I NEED A CAMERA. A CAM-ER-A.”
The shopkeeper threw up his arms in a confused gesture. So the woman screamed something unintelligible and stomped out the door.
Steph and I looked at each other nervously. Here we were, Americans, and the American right in front of us in line had just had a meltdown because a shopkeeper in Paris didn’t speak her language. We understood that we had to try with what little French we had, and were told that they would appreciate the effort. And our experience to that point and borne that out. Every “bonjour” we had said went entering any business or restaurant had helped.
The shopkeeper grinned, looking at us.
“How can I help you?” he asked in perfect, unaccented English.
Shocked, we again looked at each other nervously. “I’m sorry,” Steph finally said. “I can’t remember the word for aspirin.”
This time he grinned even more happily. Bowing, he grabbed a box from below the counter and held it out so we could see the name.
The French word for aspirin … is aspirine. Basically the same word.
So we filed that one away. But what the shopkeeper had really taught us that day was that he, like so many of the French people we have encountered in the 25 years since then, simply expect a minimal amount of effort, a bit of respect and understanding. They are, in fact, very nice indeed. If you don’t start off like Miss Ugly American, that is.