We are in the early stages of planning a trip to southern France. My approach to preparation for the trip involves learning some of the more mundane aspects of French life, with an eye toward enabling us to blend in, to the extent possible. We do not want our appearance to scream “American Tourists!” It’s not that we have any special concerns about France; I would want to prepare in the same fashion were our destination Iceland or Portugal, Ethiopia or Nepal, Paraguay or Italy. “When in Rome…” you know.
One of the first things I investigated was attire. What would shout, loudly, that we are American tourists? To my horror, I discovered that the attire I wear on a regular basis here at home would qualify as irrefutable evidence of the place I call home: faded jeans, shorts, t-shirts emblazoned with a cute phrase, white sneakers. My long and getting longer unkempt hair, too, would offer clues of my provenance. According to some of the material I read about “blending in,” I should plan my appearance and wardrobe to include the following:
- Casual, natural fabric long pants (not jeans), fitted well and, especially, fitted so the trouser legs are just long enough to reach my shoes, but not so long as to “pool” or gather in folds above my feet.
- Plain shirts, whether tees or buttoned, with no slogans, symbols, etc. identifying a place or a perspective.
- Ideally, a casual, well-fitting, light-colored l linen jacket.
- Comfortable, unostentatious leather walking shoes.
- If I need a place to store things that won’t fit in my pockets, a European-style man-bag would be a reasonable alternative (and, if I’m carrying a camera, it should fit unobtrusively into the bag); NO fannie pack.
- Properly trimmed hair that suggests like I care about and pay attention to how I look.
Aside from appearances, though, we need to plan to communicate. I have always felt that travelers have an obligation to attempt to speak the language of their hosts whenever possible. Even though we might encounter many French people who speak English, I consider it rude to assume they do. It is equally obnoxious to think they have an obligation to attempt to understand English for my benefit. So (and my readings affirm this), it is incumbent on us to learn not only some useful phrases, but to attempt to pronounce those phrases properly. No doubt there will be occasions in which we cannot communicate well in either direction; then, it is incumbent on the traveler (and not the host) to pull out the hidden phrase book and use the appropriate phrases. One of the first French phrases I plan to commit to memory (to use while I quickly pull out my phrase book) is this or something like it that may be more appropriate: Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français. Est-il possible que vous parlez un peu anglais? [I am sorry. I do not speak French. Is it possible that you speak some English?]
Unrelated to the trip, but of great interest nonetheless, I learned that the power brokers among the French linguistic elite (AKA the Académie française) long ago decided to modify the spelling and/or graphical representation of sounds of some twenty-four hundred (2400) French works. Their decision will be implemented, formally, later this year. Here are some words of explanation from The Connexion, a French English-language newspaper:
Among the noticeable differences, the letter ‘i’ can, from September, be dropped from the word ‘oignon’, and nénuphar, the traditional spelling of the French word for water-lily, will become nénufar.
Meanwhile, hyphens are set to disappear from certain words – including week-end, mille-pattes (centipedes), pique-nique, and porte-monnaie (purse).
More controversially, the circumflex will no longer be necessary above the letters ‘u’ or ‘i’ – so maîtresse will become maitresse.
Just as I was planning to expose myself to French (not “to the French,” mind you), they are making changes that will, in my mind, anglicise the language. Bastards! Ah, but I should not judge, for I know little of the motives that led to this abomination unto the lord of language! I suspect Donald Trump may have had something to do with it, but my suspicions have no basis in demonstrable fact. But there’s this gut feeling, you know? I should stop this!
Instead, I should devote myself to learning more about, and practicing, the baiser français.
More about our upcoming trip to France when the time is right and I feel like sharing more about it. [I suspect it will be after our return from France, so don’t hold your breath.]