The two complaints of Americans in France: Part I

One of the things with the biggest effect on what language people will speak to you in Paris comes from the fact that if you’re a tourist, you’re mostly interacting with people in some sort of customer service role. 


Today is Wednesday, and Wednesday is market day in my neighborhood, and I need a liter of milk. Normally I would pop into the supermarket across the street for that kind of thing, but if you want good milk–and if you want to support the little things that make life here what it is–you get your milk from a cheesemonger.  (Cheesemonger explained in the English notes below.)  The Wednesday market has plenty of cheesemongers, so under the metro tracks I went (I’m right by the elevated portion of the #6 line), and a cheesemonger I found.  Bingo: lots of bottles of milk.  I got in line.

The two most common complaints that I hear from Americans who have visited Paris:

  1. Nobody there speaks English!
  2. I tried and tried to speak French with them, but everybody just answered me in English…

Contradictory, right?  How can they both be impressions that are shared by so many people?  Seriously —I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard both of these complaints.  Actually, they both reflect the same truth: that what determines the language that people will use with you here is super-complicated.  Briefly: you have to think about which language will be used in the context of every single interaction that you have.  That interaction takes place with specific people trying to do specific things under a specific amount of pressure.  Those people come into those interactions with specific amounts of background in the two languages, and with specific amounts of tolerance for embarrassment.  One of the implications of this complicated interaction is that the same person may use a different language with you in different contexts; different people may use different languages with you in the same context.  This is so complicated that it will take multiple posts to explain–hence, the title of this post: The two most common complaints of Americans in Paris: Part I. 

One of the things with the biggest effect on what language people will speak to you here comes from the fact that if you’re a tourist, you’re mostly interacting with people in some sort of customer service role.  The hotel desk clerk, the counter girl at the Monoprix (they’re almost all girls), and most of all, the waiter–these are people who have to deal with a lot of people, and deal with them quickly.  In a situation like this, people will use whatever language they think will be most efficient for interacting with you.  Your efforts to speak French are actually very much appreciated, but if that counter person or hotel clerk thinks that they’ll be able to take care of your needs and move on to taking care of the next person’s needs most quickly in English, then that’s what they’ll speak with you–if they can.  Not everyone here is functional in English (and why would we be??), but if they can, and if they’re in a hurry, they’ll speak English with you if your French isn’t up to a super-efficient interaction.

The lady in line in front of me chez the cheesemonger started asking questions–in English.  It was clearly her native language; it was clear that she was struggling to frame her questions simply and clearly–and slowly; and it was clear that the cheesemonger was not getting it, and was not happy.  A deep breath, eyebrows down, and a worried look on his face.  No problem–I speak English natively and I am passionné du fromage (crazy about cheese), so I jumped into the conversation.  The relative strengths of some bleus were discussed; the significance of Mont d’Or in the cycle of the French year was summarized–the cheesemonger was happy to talk about his wares, as long as he could do it in a language that was shared across both sides of the counter.  Euros were handed over, cheese was handed over in return, and the nice tourists went away, tickled with both the experience and the anticipation of some good cheese-eating.

I asked for, and received, my liter of milk.  On an impulse, I picked up a small St-Félicien. The cheesemonger handed me my bag–and a small, wrapped package.  A little something to thank you for the translation, he said.  Would he have been happy to speak English with these folks, if he could?  More than happy.  Was he worried that these non-French-speaking tourists were going to throw his entire waiting line into disarray?  Absolutely.  Did it all turn out fine, with no hurt feelings on anyone’s part?  Clearly.  A tiny little moment in the cheesemonger’s day, the tourists’ day, and my day–and yet, pretty illustrative of the complexities of the question of who will speak what language to you, under what circumstances.  That waiter who impatiently responds to your carefully-rehearsed-but-nonetheless-halting French in English?  If it weren’t the lunch rush, he might very well be up for having a long conversation with you about the rignons de veaux à la sauce de moutard — in your halting French.  But, in the context of a busy lunch hour, he’s going to go with whichever language works out most efficiently for getting your order taken and moving on to the next table.

The small, wrapped package contained a cheese.  Just a little guy–I’ve included my sunglasses and key in the photo to provide some scale.  But, based on what I had ordered, this was a perfect choice–similar to the kind of cheese that he knows I like, ’cause I just bought some (a Saint-Félicien); but, different, in the subtle kinds of ways that lovers of French cheese savor (it’s probably a Saint-Marcellin or a Pélardon (I’ll know when I eat it)).  Scroll down for the English notes.  Sorry, no French notes today–gotta jump on the train to get my convention d’accueil so that I can RENEW MY VISA!  🙂


English notes

cheesemonger, fishmonger, hate-monger, war-monger: English has a number of words that end with -monger.  The basic meaning of this affix is that it is someone who sells something specific.  So, a fishmonger sells fish (there are a few of them in the market under the metro tracks; I understand that if they lop the head off of your fish for you, you’re supposed to tip them a euro), while a cheesemonger sells cheese.

You also see this affix in words referring to people who try to spread something amongst people.  A war-monger is a proponent of war; a hate-monger tries to get people to hate other people.  Scroll down to see examples of all of these in use; be aware that the spelling of these words can be variable with respect to whether or not they’re written as one word, and if they are written as one word, variable as to whether or not it’s hyphenated.

The worst kind of war-monger, for my money–a guy who won’t fight, and whose kids won’t fight, either. (For context: I spent nine and a half years in the US Navy.) Source:
Fisherman buying fish on the way home...!
Picture source:

5 thoughts on “The two complaints of Americans in France: Part I”

  1. A mon avis c’est un Saint Marcellin. Pour la suite, concernant la deuxième assertion, nous autres français sommes tellement contents de pouvoir d’une part, avoir la chance de pratiquer un peu l’anglais avec un native speaker (sans nous mettre trop en danger), de l’autre, pouvoir démontrer que l’on comprend et parle un peu l’anglais en France. Un peu de fierté nationale 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this post muchly. It is so important to defend the workers who need to be effective and efficient and are NOT being rude when faced with Spanish Cows, just moving things along. And the cheese? My money’s on Saint Marcelin so close to Saint Felicien as to be bedfellows. I am sated in them. They make em on my doorstep. And one day I won’t be here. Go with the flow … surely linguistically and culinarily that should be the first rule.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Osyth, there’s only one way to deal with this situation: eat, and eat, and eat those guys as long as you’re there! Oh, and your FIL’s book on the topic remains on my Amazon wish list…


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