The Village Idiot in Paris

by Gray Cargill on November 30, 2010

Post image for The Village Idiot in Paris

I wish you all could have seen the first three tweets I sent from Paris.  Unfortunately, they never made it from my loaner phone back to the Twittersphere.  But if you could have seen them, they would have looked like this:

My first day in Paris has not been a resounding success.

Parisians are all very nice to me, but they must think I am the village idiot. Even I think that right now.

Day 2 in Paris was much better than day 1. The sun shone over Canal St. Martin. To the best of my knowledge I committed no major faux pas.

Paris was a challenge for me.  Blame it on the jetlag, blame it on the lack of French language skills, blame it on the fact that I was in a foreign country I’d never been in before, but I couldn’t seem to do anything right.  I tripped, stumbled, and dropped things more often than I normally do.  I committed faux pas. I got lost repeatedly. I had trouble figuring out the simplest tasks. As a recovering perfectionist, it was very frustrating–and emotionally exhausting.

Remember how worried I was before the trip about not being able to speak much French?  Turns out I wasn’t crazy after all.  Nine times out of ten when I said “Je suis désolé, je ne parlez francais, parlez vous anglais?” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak French, do you speak English?), the answer was no.  They were always nice about it, but the answer was still no.

At my first hotel (an annexe to another hotel), the front door had a security touchpad.  I was given the code to let myself in.  No matter how many times I tried to punch in the code (yes, I was punching in the right code), I could not get the damn door to open.  No one else seemed to have any problems with it.  Luckily, there was always someone around to let me in, but my God, they must have thought I was a moron.  I also couldn’t get my window in my room to shut all the way.  It was a swinging window, too top heavy to stay closed, and I couldn’t find a lock or a latch anywhere on it.  Between the cold air and the street noises seeping in, it was impossible to sleep in the room.  I fiddled with that window for probably 30 minutes before finally giving up and calling the front desk to send someone up to take a look at it.  The young woman at the front desk came up herself and figured out how to close it in less than a minute.

Prefecture de Police

I felt as clutzy and inept as Inspector Clouseau in Paris.

I had lunch my first day in Paris at a brasserie at Place Republique.  There was a step between the bar area and the restaurant area. Naturally, I tripped on it. (Both ways.)  And I almost knocked my glass of water over.  But somehow, using sign language and my limited French, I made it through that lunch without setting the restaurant on fire.

For dinner, I confess, I was going to eat at the McDonalds at Place Republique, because I was tired, it had been a long day, and I wanted to eat early so I could just crawl into bed and get some sleep.  But when I got there, it was just too depressing, so I left.  It was pouring rain out. I was getting wet, even with an umbrella.  I passed a number of cafes and bistros and couldn’t make up my mind where I wanted to eat.  Finally, I saw a menu that had quiche on it (something I recognized!) and there were people sitting inside eating.  I walked past a guy smoking at a table outside and entered.

I remembered immediately that you’re not supposed to have a wet umbrella inside, so I hurriedly closed it up and shoved it in the umbrella stand by the door so I wouldn’t drip on their floor–forgetting completely the other thing you’re supposed to remember whenever you enter an establishment, which is to greet people.  Once I was done with the umbrella, I looked up and everyone was staring at me.  A man said pointedly “Bonjour.”  I realized my faux pas and blurted out “Bonjour!”

When he got up and walked over to me, I realized he worked there.  I fumbled with the french to ask for a table for one.  He pointed at the clock.  It was only 6:45pm.  Cafes don’t open until 7pm in Paris.  I had walked in on the staff having dinner.  Shoot. Me. Now. PLEASE, I thought.

He was incredibly gracious about it, and ushered me to a table anyway and got me a glass of water while they finished their dinner and prepared to open.  It was quite possibly the most awkward 15 minutes of my life.  At the stroke of 7, he brought me a menu–all in French–and I ordered the aforementioned quiche.  I made it through the rest of the meal without setting this restaurant on fire, either. Thank God for small favors.

The next day started off pretty well. The sun was shining and I enjoyed a morning stroll by Canal St. Martin before heading over to the Opera House.  I went to use a public toilet at Gare de l’est train station.  I thought it was weird that I had to walk past what looked like a reception desk to get to the bathrooms. . . .Until I heard “Madame. . .Madame. . . Madame!” and realized the woman at the front desk was calling to me.  I was supposed to pay her 50 cents to use the toilet.  Oops.

By the time I checked into my 3rd hotel on Friday, I was one frayed nerve. Blessedly, there was a complimentary bottle of red wine in my room.  I don’t even drink wine, but it had been a rough week, so I struggled for 15 minutes to the get the cork out of the bottle.  After one glass, I was done, but couldn’t get the cork back in.  I told myself I should just dump the rest of the wine down the sink before I spilled it, but I decided to wait until after dinner to see if I wanted another glass.  What do you think happened?  Yup. I got back from dinner and somehow knocked the bottle over, spilling red wine all over the desk and wound up ruining one of their white towels mopping it up.

So yes, I was the Village Idiot in Paris. By the end of the week I must have uttered the phrase “Je suis désolé” (“I’m sorry”) over a hundred times.  But you know what?  I survived.  I didn’t starve to death, I didn’t wind up in jail, I wasn’t mugged, and I didn’t wind up dead in a ditch.  I saw Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre, walked along the Seine, sat in cafes people-watching, met some terrific people, and enjoyed the beautiful architecture of a beautiful city.  See?  You don’t have to be perfect or graceful or even speak the language very well to travel alone to a foreign country.  It may not always be easy, but you can do it.

I think being a big screw-up during this trip was good for me.  Being outside my comfort zone gave me a perspective I haven’t had in a long time.  Sometimes we need to struggle, to be frustrated, to be willing to look foolish in someone else’s eyes in order to learn and grow. . .and to be able to empathize with others.  I hope the next time I see a tourist or an immigrant here in the U.S. struggling to figure out bus routes or items in the grocery store, I notice and stop to take the time to help, because I know now how frustrating that can be.  And if I hear my fellow Americans getting snarky about visitors to our country who don’t speak English, I’ll tell them my story and ask them to be as gracious and patient as the French were with me.

I Heart Paris

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Gray April 14, 2012 at 8:05 am

Oh yeah, Paris is a great place. You should have a great time, no matter what, Wale. Enjoy!

Wale April 14, 2012 at 1:16 am

Thank you so much for this article. I ad such a good laugh. Planning a trip there soon so your experience comes in so handy. Based on your article and others I’ve read, I think Paris is going to be a really interesting experience. The French are such an interesting people from what I see.

Gray July 8, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Thanks, Shannon! Yeah, I think we all go through trips like that, it must be a universal experience.

Shannon O'Donnell July 8, 2011 at 10:44 am

It seems there always has to be one of those tough travel days mixed in there…I too have landed in a country and just can’t seem to do anything right, nor understand the people. It sounds like you managed to get yourself out of the funck though and still enjoy! Glad you linked to this in your 7! I hadn’t caught this one when you wrote it 🙂

Natka December 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm

This post reminded me Brigdet Jone’s diary 🙂

SoloFriendly December 7, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Really? Wow. Cool.

Alicia December 6, 2010 at 5:30 am

Every time I read about Paris I can’t help but be amazed. Paris is my dream trip with my husband and it is really an accomplishment on our part if we will be able to go there by 2012. We have been targeting this trip for a long time and hopefully we will finally make it. Meantime, I will just do researching and reading updates about the beautiful place Paris.

SoloFriendly December 6, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I think you’ll like it, it’s a very romantic city. Definitely save your pennies. It’s a dream worth realizing!

Andrea and John December 5, 2010 at 9:33 am

Loved this post – it gave me a big, broad smile. I’ve spent heaps of time in Paris and even though I can speak and write some French, I have a hard time understanding because they speak so quickly. I too learned how to say, “Je ne parlez francais, parlez vous anglais?” in perfect French (it makes them give you a funny look when your accent is good, though, doesn’t it?) Got me around more than any other phrases I knew. I found that a lot of people did speak English, as long as you made the effort to speak to them in French first. Hope the rest of your time there went better! =) Andrea

SoloFriendly December 5, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Glad you liked it, Andrea. My accent is probably terrible, so I wonder if they even knew what I was trying to say half the time. 🙂 Yeah, despite all my blunders and mistakes, I did enjoy Paris.

Janet Hulstrand December 5, 2010 at 2:52 am

oh, i laughed out loud and felt such kinship with you, reading this. you are not alone! travel klutzes from mark twain to james thurber to jack kerouac, bill bryson, and david sedaris, and MANY MORE OF US have been right there with you…thanks for sharing your embarrassing moments with us…and you are right, it’s all part of how and why we learn so much when we step outside of our comfort zones…

SoloFriendly December 5, 2010 at 3:12 am

Were they all travel klutzes too? Well, I feel in good company, then. Thanks, Janet.

Mary-Alice (Dog Jaunt) December 4, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I showed this post to my husband, and he remembered — remarkably vividly — an early visit of his to Paris. He went to a café and ordered a “salade club,” on the grounds that he could pronounce it (he gave the “club” the full-on “cloob” treatment). The waiter gave him a puzzled face and made him repeat his order several times. His face clearing, he repeated back to my husband “Ah, salade club,” with EXACTLY THE SAME PRONUNCIATION that Walter had been using. And then smiled mischievously.
That said, Walter loved Paris on that trip, and has loved it ever since. It must just be irresistible sometimes to torture the tourists.

SoloFriendly December 5, 2010 at 1:03 am

LOL, that’s a great story, Mary-Alice. It may be irresistible to them (and who can blame them?), but they showed great restraint in my case.

Tiptoe Traveller December 4, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Gosh, poor you. I really hope you enjoyed Paris still and that you haven’t left with a negative image of France. Being French myself, living in London, I can completely sympathise. When I arrived in England, I have found myself in pretty embarrassing situations. But I have found people really helpful in most cases. The thing with Paris is that a lot of people understand English but are perhaps embarrassed to speak it. Next time, you need to visit another region.

SoloFriendly December 5, 2010 at 1:02 am

Thanks for the sympathy, TT. But on the contrary, I left feeling that Parisians are really, really kind, patient people who don’t deserve their reputation for rudeness. And Paris is a beautiful city, I just wish I’d chosen a warmer time of year to visit. Next time. 🙂

Kara December 4, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Oh, Gray! My heart sunk as you told the “walked in on the staff eating dinner story.” I could feel your angst and embarrassment! (I would have felt the same way, and likely would have just walked outta there to avoid the 15-minute wait; that said, perhaps that would have felt worse. Eesh, I’m thinking they could have brought you a cup of tea or a piece of bread!) Anyway, we’ve all been there at various points in our lives. Gald you had the guts to share this.

SoloFriendly December 5, 2010 at 12:56 am

Oh they offered me whatever I wanted to drink, but naturally, my brain froze and all I could think of was water. I’m not a wine drinker, so I wouldn’t have had a clue what wine to order. Yeah, that was pretty much the low point of my trip. It had nowhere to go but up from there!

GRRRL TRAVELER December 3, 2010 at 11:05 am

Endearing story, but I’m so sorry you felt like an idiot. Perhaps you’ve heard one too many bad stories about how rude French can be to “idiotic americans” and that idea was sabotaging you. Sometimes I get the same way- I try to be overly polite.

But either way, it sounds like you did amazing! Your mistakes “felt” overwhelming but they weren’t bad. Also, giving others a chuckle at your own expense is ALWAYS a good thing! Glad you had good experiences w/ the French otherwise.

That “Je suis desole, je’n … do you speak English?” line IS as you found, a long-winded textbook line for an instant rejection. I wish I could’ve saved you that mouthful.

Mostly, it’s intimidating to those who KNOW broken bits of English, but aren’t confident. When French ask me if I know Fr, I say No even if on a basic level I can get by… it’s bc I’m really hearing “Do you speak fluently/perfectly?” In Korea, it works the same. Being humble & gently goofy about things while letting on that I speak English,gets others to attempt their broken bits.

Either way, you rocked Paris. Jerry Lewis or not, I”m sure they loved you!

SoloFriendly December 3, 2010 at 9:50 pm

“That “Je suis desole, je’n … do you speak English?” line IS as you found, a long-winded textbook line for an instant rejection.”–LOL, yeah, that pretty much sums it up. 🙂

vf December 3, 2010 at 3:58 am

Found this via David Lebovitz. Hilarious! I just came back from spending a few weeks in Paris and experienced many of the same things. I realized that I had learned many phrases that I should use- but did not spend enough time learning the things that people would be saying to me – for example – whatever they say to say “can I help you” at stores, stumped me every time. I would blankly stare at them, until they realized I was just not understanding what they were saying. Whoops. Loved it all the same though 🙂

SoloFriendly December 3, 2010 at 9:49 pm

You too, vf? That’s a relief.

Renee King December 2, 2010 at 7:41 pm

This is proof that there is always a silver lining in every cloud. Travel isn’t always an endeavor of perfection. Things happen…embarrassing, awkward things, but you do grow from them. Mistakes are the formidable instructors, you learn so much from them. In the end, you accomplished your mission, you got to see some of the most beautiful architecture in the world. Small victories in the face of adversity are wonderful.

SoloFriendly December 2, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Well said, Renee. 🙂

WDWPRINCE December 2, 2010 at 6:40 am

This post was a fun read. You turned the focus of the post on the mishaps and made them a delight. I’ve only been to Paris once and it was many years ago. My series of downers started right in the airport when an employee wouldn’t tell me in English where the baggage claim was. It’s an airport, I know you can speak some English! Things didn’t get much better from there. It seems like we all have a bad Paris experience. Great job on your writing.

SoloFriendly December 2, 2010 at 11:52 am

Thank you, Paul. If it’s any consolation, the airport has better signage for baggage claim now. 🙂

Weekend In Paris December 2, 2010 at 3:37 am

So glad you perservered! We should have set up a tweetup for you on your first night so you would be amongst “friends” who would make your transition easier – add that to your Tips for Solo Trips!
Your photos are very nice Gray and I like that you wrote the un-romantic view of your first solo trip to Paris.

SoloFriendly December 2, 2010 at 11:51 am

Ah it’s okay. Like I said, it was a learning experience. I got to spend part of my 2nd day with Marlys of @ParisBuff and Jodi of @legalnomads, so that helped a lot.

Anonymous December 2, 2010 at 3:34 am

Congratulations for surviving! Sounds like a rough trip, but I’m glad you made it through and still had a good time. When you’re ready for recovery, Las Vegas awaits.

SoloFriendly December 2, 2010 at 11:50 am

Las Vegas is definitely more of a relaxing vacation. Looking forward to it!

Robin @ MyMelange December 2, 2010 at 2:50 am

Glad to read this piece about your Paris trip Gray. You weren’t an idiot – just a run of bad luck I think. Just think of all the stories you’ll be able to tell with a smile. I do hope you enjoyed Paris otherwise. Can’t wait to hear more about your trip – where you went and of course what you ate. Did you like the hotels that you stayed in?

SoloFriendly December 2, 2010 at 11:49 am

Yes, I liked them very much. I’ll be reviewing them here soon. Stay tuned…

Anonymous December 1, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Love this post! Although, I’m sure you wish things went smoother, but the bumps make for the best stories. Having someone demonstrate just simple kindness in showing you the way or not laughing when you trip can mean a lot. I hope your trip gets less rocky!

SoloFriendly December 1, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Apparently they do, Suzy. I’m back from my trip, actually, and it did improve, thanks.

Taylor Williams December 1, 2010 at 3:45 pm

I LOVED this post. Thank you so much for sharing.

SoloFriendly December 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm

You’re welcome, and thank you for the kind comment!

Sabina December 1, 2010 at 11:19 am

Gray, I don’t think you were the village idiot!! I’ve never been to Paris, or France, but I’m sure they’re challenging. Especially when you think of all the snotty French stereotypes we’re taught – that they’re more fasionable than us, that they look down on people who don’t speak French, etc. Plus, the girl who closed your window had probably done it many times for other people. This is a very funny post, though 🙂

SoloFriendly December 1, 2010 at 11:57 am

You raise a good point, Sabina. I was pretty intimidated by the reputation of the French before I even got there, which probably made me more nervous, which probably added to my bumbling.

Candicewalsh December 1, 2010 at 4:11 am

Omg, Gray…I seriously has this same experience in France. It’s pretty funny looking back on it now, though. I accidentally denied a handicapped woman her seat, kicked a lady in a cast, asked a cab driver to take me to the wrong place, thought I was losing my mind because I couldn’t figure out how to use a hotel light switch (turns out the fuse was blown, but I just decided to live in darkness rather than deal with the conversation), and fumbled my way through ridiculous conversations with a French boy.

We survived, right? I feel like I have to write about this too now, haha. The best part is that I actually know a fair bit of French, I’ve been studying it for years, but I could NOT speak it within the country. Entirely different experience. You’re not alone!

SoloFriendly December 1, 2010 at 11:56 am

Oh, Candice, please DO write about your experiences. They sound funny already. Really? You knew French and you still couldn’t speak it? I’ve heard the dialect can be a lot different between regions of France and also French-speaking Canada, too, so maybe that added to the difficulty. Plus they speak so fast….

Elise December 1, 2010 at 3:25 am

I loved this post! I’m sorry but I did find my self chuckling at your misfortunes, not out of spite, but becasue I have been in those EXACT situations while we have been travelling! sometimes these days just happen! But I guess in the end, like you said, it was no big deal (you ddn;t end up in jail!!!) Travelling only makes you more patient I think!!

SoloFriendly December 1, 2010 at 11:53 am

Thanks, Elise. And I agree. It was probably a good experience for me in the long run.

Keith Savage November 30, 2010 at 11:07 pm

That’s one hell of a trip. I appreciate that you pointed out the struggles of a traveler. Too often those go undocumented. And I’ve had my fair share here in Argentina. Like you, my language preparedness was inadequate. And, since I’m trying to do work with this trip, it has been a huge problem. Lesson learned.

SoloFriendly December 1, 2010 at 2:17 am

Hey, at least my ride showed up at the airport. 🙂 I felt really bad for you when I read that post. The language difficulties we have had make me wonder about the nomads. If you’re on the road all the time, traveling from country to country, you can’t possibly learn the language of each country thoroughly before you get there (unless you already know it). So basic communication, understanding of signs and menus and directions must be a constant struggle. I would be exhausted by that. I should probably go to a German-speaking country next; at least I studied that in school. Presumably I’d remember some of it.

Keith Savage December 1, 2010 at 3:05 am

Funny, I studied Spanish in high school for four years. Little good that’s done me 🙂 As for perpetual nomads, I think they get along just fine. I mean, if I was just in Argentina for fun the language wouldn’t *truly* be a problem. I could get along, as I am, with basic phrases and gestures. However, seeing as how I’m trying to delve into the culture and investigate, the inability to undergo extended conversations in Spanish is disabling.

There’s no way I can learn conversational anything in the months between trips, so this lesson must inevitably inform my choices (or planning) for future destinations.

SoloFriendly December 1, 2010 at 11:52 am

Yikes. I can see where it would be even more of a problem for you, given what you’re trying to do. Can you hire an interpreter, even for a few hours? That’s disappointing that the language barrier has gotten in the way of your goal for you trip. Sorry, Keith.

zablon mukuba November 30, 2010 at 4:13 pm

it sounds you had a great time in France without knowing the language. whenever i go to a country where they dont speak English i normally have problems especially with the bus routes

SoloFriendly November 30, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Yeah, bus and train routes, and trying to read signs where it’s only in French. Very tough.

Dixonhicks November 30, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I read through this and quickly realized that you are absolutely hilarious! You took situations that would be caused others to throw in the towel and you found the humor in the situation. This sounded to be quite a challenge, but it really was a delightful post. I could see myself doing the exact same things. LOL

lilmissdisney November 30, 2010 at 6:21 pm

As clumsy as it was, it sounds like you had fun. I could relate to many of your clumsy experiences when I went. It adds a bit more stress for the trip but it makes for greater memories and stories. Not much of a story to say I went. I saw. I came back :).

SoloFriendly November 30, 2010 at 9:54 pm

True, my travels in the past have been pretty drama-free. I don’t tend to get drunk or in trouble, and usually even my flying experiences go smoothly. Maybe I need to be a screw-up more often?

SingleOccupancy Blog November 30, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Aw, Gray! Sounds like you made the most of your time in Paris anyway. And now you have great stories to tell!

SoloFriendly November 30, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Yeah, it doesn’t end there, that’s for sure. Are you back from Savannah?

mroyer November 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

This is the kind of experience that stays with you a while. So glad you had a good time and had some adventure! Great blog post!!!!!

SoloFriendly November 30, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Thank you, Michael.

Lisa E @chickybus November 30, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Great post…sounds like a cool trip that was rewarding on a number of levels.

I’ve also found that people around the world are generally helpful to foreigners… I’m so glad to see that people were nice in Paris. It was like that for me when I was in a medium-sized city in Czech Republic. I had no clue and people helped me and most often, with a smile on their face.

I’m with you re: assisting immigrants and foreigners when you see them struggling here. It’s the least we can do considering how we’re treated when we’re over there!

SoloFriendly November 30, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Yes, Lisa, and I think that may be one of the strongest arguments in favor of travel. So we’re more patient with people who come here and don’t have a clue how to do things.

paris (im)perfect November 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Great post! I’ve lived in Paris 4 years and I *still* feel like an idiot a lot! One of the reasons I named my blog paris (im)perfect – with a whole separate “Faux Pas” category! It sounds like you did a great job, though. You survived, you’re reflecting, and you’ve definitely learned something. I’m glad you had some nice experiences, too (this could easily have turned into a much worse experience – rude people do exist here, as anywhere!)

BTW, I see you’re in Burlington. I’ll be in Vermont (Montpelier) soon for a writing residency. Getting ready for snow! Thanks again for the fun post 🙂

SoloFriendly November 30, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Thanks! I love your blog, btw. I can SO relate! You’re coming to Vermont for a writing residency? Cool–literally. It’s pretty much just as cold here as in Paris. Bundle up! 🙂

Jenny Rebecca November 30, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Love this post! Just imagine you were channeling Jerry Lewis and endearing yourself to the French. :O) I remember visiting France on our honeymoon where on our first restaurant visit it took at LEAST 45 minutes to order food – sitting there trying not to be embarrassed, flipping through our translation book. We made sure to order drinks and soup while trying to figure out what everything else was on the menu.

SoloFriendly November 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Yes, Jerry Lewis, Inspector Clouseau, and maybe Lucille Ball all rolled into one. That was me. Hey, at least you consulted a translation book. Good for you!

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