It’s often said that if you don’t speak French, you’ll have a terrible time in France.
There are countless scary examples of just how that terrible time will manifest itself; waiters will ignore you while the other patrons in the cafe smirk over their cocas and croque monsieurs at your mounting discomfort and impatience; shop assistants will patronise and diddle you; taxi-drivers will deliver you to the wrong address, shout at you, then take off with your change; hotel receptionists will sneer at you, give you the room with the broken telly, next door to the one for rent by the hour, overlooking the courtyard with the rubbish bins where the dero sings all night, then shrug, mystified and uncomprehending when you complain; if you seek help or directions in the street, even pre-fixed with a humble “Excuse me, do you speak English?” you’ll be brushed off with a “Non! Désolé” (whatever that means!) The list goes on …
It’s just as often said that the French can all speak English, they just refuse to, to make life difficult and because, “of course, they hate the English!” Examples here are rather thin, but there one or two afloat about the waiters who will take an order in English from the flirty girl with the long legs while flatly ignoring the desperate finger-clickings and thunderous glares of the middle-aged man with the short black socks under Roman sandals.
Both statements are, of course, generalisations. True, there are those who have an unhappy time in France because they don’t speak French, but there are many others who have the time of their lives in spite of it. True, many French people do speak English, but many don’t and some are reluctant to, not because they’re obtuse or detest anglophones, but because, like people the world over, they’re afraid they’ll embarrass themselves.
While competence in French is no guarantee of a fabulous séjour en France (even a few of the totally fluent have been heard to complain of some of the outrages from the list above) usually any gracious effort to speak the language is appreciated as the gesture of goodwill and respect that it is. It smooths the way and opens the door to communication.
So dust off the schoolboy or the schoolgirl French! Reach for the Lonely Planet phrasebook – it covers pretty well every contingency (and proposition!) At the very least, polish up the Oui! Oui!, the Non! Non!, the Monsieur, the Madame, the Merci, the S’il vous plait, the Bonjour! and the Au Revoir! Even a little language goes a long way.