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WORLD OF WORDS: At least know the meaning of “gauche” before you travel abroad

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out in September with She Writes Press, recounts some of the bad elements she and her husband encountered during their travels.

When living in or even just briefly visiting a country not your own, bad behavior often involves words. Or sometimes, the lack of them.

Over the course of the adult gap year I took with my husband to explore Europe, we frequently witnessed what we considered bad behavior by expats or tourists. There’s no excuse for being in a country without learning the basics of its culture and at least a modicum of words for pleasantries. To do otherwise selfishly places you and your mother tongue at the center of the language universe and disrespects the country and the people you’ve chosen to visit.

Rude Americans in the City of Light

Our 365 days of travel began with a month in Paris. In the space of two evenings, we observed very different, yet equally disappointing, back-to-back dining experiences. The food was terrific but our neighbors were not. Both incidents involved Americans in the City of Light for long stays.

Parisian cafe bad elements

Photo credit: Parisian bistro at night, by La Citta Vita via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The first took place in a bright busy bistro where we were seated next to a retired married couple from Reno, Nevada. They had been coming to Paris for six weeks at the end of every summer for several years.

The second was in a dim crêperie where we sat across from a middle-aged man and woman from U.S. parts unknown (although her accent gave her away as coming from the deep south). He taught something somewhere to students in Paris and she stated indignantly as we ordered our drinks that she, “could not take another year over here—twelve months was more than enough.” Everyone has a story.

Some of the two couples’ background they shared with us and other bits we overheard. What absolutely amazed me—in fact made me wince—was that none of these four Americans even attempted to speak French to the wait staff.

I completely identify with not knowing a language; we traveled through multiple countries whose languages eluded me, yet we always learned to say hello, please, thank you and you’re welcome.

But all four of these people had spent significant time in France. Would it have been so difficult to read off the menu and say, “la salade” and ”le poulet” instead of “the salad” and “the chicken?” Could the guy who’s been teaching here for a year at least have learned to say, “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” instead of “the check, please?” Might they all have been able replace, “Thank you—goodbye,” with “Merci—au revoir?”

I’m sympathetic towards tourists who travel for brief visits, but after six weeks every year and a full twelve months in Paris, there’s simply no excuse. That’s behaving badly in my book.

Blatant bad behavior in Aix

Well into our sabbatical year having traveled through 20 additional countries, we were back in the pleasures of France. And yet again, we found ourselves observing a more blatant brand of bad behavior.

We had settled in the stylish university town of Aix-en-Provence at the height and in the heat of a south-of-France summer. One of our favorite pastimes was sitting for long mornings under the dense shade of sycamores—les platanes—their green canopies arching over appealing squares filled with tiny bistro tables. The unique mosaic of the sycamores’ peeling bark intrigued us—uneven patterns of pastel yellows, tawny russets, avocado greens and dull grays—and we never tired of studying the colors.

Aix plantanes

But on one morning, our idyllic interlude under royal sycamores was marred by the manners of plebeians.

Enjoying cafés au lait, croissants, and the daily chatter of French summer school students in the outdoor shade, we were startled when an Eastern European quartet of two tanned Moms and their Mini-Me daughters, each one more rude than the other, unceremoniously marched onto the terrace.

There were no “bonjours” and no smiles in response to the sweet greetings of the waitress. The women’s bravado more than upset the drowsy morning ambience.

All were similarly clad in skinny jeans, patent leather stilettos and Jackie-O shades with “spoiled” plastered across heavily made-up faces. Distressed that the cafe served no food for breakfast and when politely urged, as we had been, to run up the street to the local boulangerie for croissants, the most vocal of the four retorted brusquely and loudly in accented English, “What, the French don’t eat breakfast? Ridiculous.”

We so wanted to see her wobble up the cobblestoned hill in search of pastries in those heels.

stilettos in Aix

Rather than rebuke the vocal twenty-something for bad behavior and creating a scene, however, her mother barked an order for orange juice—“freshly squeezed.” The OJ not forthcoming, they settled loudly for espressos, plopped down in their chairs and insolently picked up their Blackberries with identical pouts.

Bad-mannered people come from all corners of the world, and, unfortunately, they sometimes chose to sit next to us.

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for sharing these horror stories! I agree, more people need to join your world of words!

Readers, have you ever met the tourists from hell, and were they using English in a non-English-speaking country at the time? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in early September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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10 responses to “WORLD OF WORDS: At least know the meaning of “gauche” before you travel abroad

  1. eliang December 11, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    I’ve witnessed this sort of behavior by visitors and expats in many countries, and am glad that there are people like Marianne and her husband making a better impression on hosts. Lively post!

  2. Gene H. Bell-Villada December 12, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I have an anecdote of my own to share about monolingual Americans. In 1995 I was in Madrid, running a study-abroad program. At some point my wife and I had a visit from a guy, a colleague of hers from work plus a female friend of his. We hosted them, took them on a walking tour, and everywhere we went, the woman would order or ask questions in English. At one point she ambled into a café for directions, and came out saying to us, “I guess they don’t seem to know where it is.”

    It took us a while to realize that this young lady, with a bachelor’s degree from a business college in Boston had absolutely no clue that, in Spain, people don’t speak English! She really thought that English was the norm! And I have no doubt that she was not at all exceptional…

    • mcbohr December 15, 2015 at 2:40 pm

      If only we would require students to take a second language starting in kindergarten. It would certainly help them learn quickly and open up their world view!

  3. cindamackinnon December 12, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    I was in France recently for a few days with a group of Frenchmen and a smattering of Europeans. I was delighted to practice my French with delightful people when the lone American, who spoke no French and didn’t try, thus attached herself to me. That would have been acceptable, except the first day she made loud, disparaging remarks about Europeans – and we were seated around a table so I couldn’t leave (but I did want to crawl under the table!). What was she thinking?

  4. Emily Cannell- Hey From Japan December 14, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    It`s amazing what people think is acceptable- an American woman I knew in Japan- I won`t claim her as a friend-used to call over the Japanese wait staff using various cuss words. The worst part was everyone thought it was funny? That`s some bad karma right there….

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