I was already a grown-up, but I still got annoyed with the old rhymes: “Luís, Luís has broken his nose”, or the more frequent one “Luís, Luís has been to Paris” – that one would be mighty annoying, as it got me so indignated. First, because I never found it funny, and then because it was not true. I’d say “…never been to Paris man!” Aside from all that, there’s the fact that France is one of the most visited countries in the world. My wish to see that country has always been a mix of a wish to solve my childhood trauma with a wish to let myself fall in love with that “trés chique” lifestyle movies got me dreaming about.
Either you speak French, or you get fooled
The first barrier was the language. Speaking Portuguese might help, but it doesn’t mean one will automatically be able to speak French. My suspicion that the French really don’t care for the English language was confirmed as soon as I tried to start talking with the locals. The first test happened in La Rochelle, in the South of France. While I was drawing a 40-something lady approached me with some very friendly talk in French. I’d been in France for a few days and I still hadn’t learned anything beyond the typical tourist words. In any case, we did manage to understand each other. It’s like a translator shows up to tell them my story every time I open my sketchbook.
With my brain moved in space, but living in the moment, I tend to find similarities with Portugal in most traditions and lifestyles I encounter. Portugal and France are closer than the language barrier would have one think. Hence, my quest to know why the French won’t speak English became a mission. I met a young French guy called Matthieu in Dijon. He spoke fluent English, so I couldn’t miss the chance to ask him what he thought of that linguistic conundrum.
“I’m a through and through French guy, but I have to admit the French are lazy to learn languages and I don’t believe that will be changing much anytime soon.”
That still wasn’t enough. I wanted to know where such a lack of will to communicate came from.
“If we analyze it, the tourists who come here already seem terrified by the thought of having to speak French, so they end up making our life easier, and we don’t make an effort to learn other languages.” This may well be. Every year France welcomes millions of tourists who come to consume the European art and charm, taking French language away from the equation would mean we’d be taking away part of the country’s identity. As it is, my skepticism led to even more questions.
Talking to Alexandra, a Venezuelan of French origin, who’s lived in Paris for years, I asked about the reasons for the Parisian arrogance.
“Most people who live in Paris aren’t French, and they know tourism is a fact of life in this city. They just allow themselves to look over their own shoulders. Many people are tired of the consumerism frenzy.” I myself was a victim of that bad temper and disrespect.
“All you have to do is yell over whoever is being arrogant with you, then they’ll see you’re not just playing around and they’ll treat you well. Paris is a city where nobody will take interest in anyone else unless there’s money involved.” Is that the real reason for the poor sense of hospitality? To be fair, although Paris is a real human laundry, trying to talk and get help from those living in the streets is the best way to get a different picture, learn some French and get rid of the poison injected by the grumpy faces.
After many weeks traveling through Napoleonic lands, a realization hit me: “I can already communicate in French!” The second part of a personal dream was finally coming true. To learn in the necessity of traveling. Can there be any satisfaction greater than the one of getting richer without apparent effort?
Now that I’ve crossed the smile barrier, not knowing French, I can say that listening to this language that seems like it’s right out of my great grandparents’ china set is like having the Louvre right before me. Especially when it’s spoken by a vintage looking female face.
Translation by Helena Palha