You Can’t Win (French) Friends With Dad Jokes

There are few things that I love more than traveling. I don’t just love traveling, I feel deeply at ease with it. Even the obstacles that come up – missed flights, overlooked reservations, wrong directions, miscalculated timing – I approach with a grace I rarely have when confronted with similar situations at home.

But landing in Paris threw me for a bit of a loop. I find Paris a charming city (does anyone not?), but I don’t think that Paris and I have the same sensibilities. Not only does it seem that Parisians don’t care much for dad jokes (or at least not the baristas at the coffee shops I frequent), but harder yet is that they all speak French. Which makes a lot of sense (because, you know: France), but I don’t speak a word of it.

It has surprised me how self-conscious I feel about this. I notice that I feel stupid and uncultured when the topic comes up.

I have traveled before to countries where I don’t speak the language, but never have I felt so self-conscious as here. I think because in most of the other places their languages are so rarely studied and spoken outside their own country that it’s not expected or surprising when a stranger visits and can’t speak a word. But French is (relatively) widely spoken. It is studied as a second language in the US and across Europe and still remains the language of colonization across a fair amount of the world. And the French seem to have little patience with my linguistic ignorance. The most interesting thing is that I feel like I must defend myself every time it comes up. People ask if I can speak French and when I say no, I anxiously follow it up with “but I can speak to you in Spanish and Hebrew, I’ve got some Bahasa and Amharic under my belt and bits of Thai…”

My friend is set on teaching me French while I am here. I find it confusing, difficult and non-intuitive. But I suspect those things stem more from my resistance than from the language itself. So I’m making the effort. Small things – today I learned that poire means pear. Tomorrow, I’ll see if I can’t work that into a dad joke.


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