I have just come back from a week's holiday in Paris
. Before anyone asks, I had a wonderful time. Now, we all know that the French
, and the Parisians
in particular, are remarkable in their rudeness to tourists and their inability or reluctance to speak English
to them, right? Wrong. I had no problem getting directions, buying things in shops or making myself understood to waiters and Metro
ticket sellers. I have encountered many instances of kindness
and helpfulness coupled with good humour in the slightly ridiculous situation
in which two people who don't speak each other's language perforce
find themselves attempting to communicate
So what's so special about me (nothing, I assure you, it was a rhetorical question)? Why are Italians, Greeks, Egyptians and Parisians so forthcoming with me while being so reticent with others? Well, I don't know, but I think it might have something to do with the fact that I almost never ask them if they speak English. I mean, why the hell should they? I wouldn't dream of asking them if they speak Hebrew, or Russian, would I?
Yes, I know that English is the international language of business and science. American movies are everyhwere, CNN is endemic, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, when you go to another country, you have to expect them to do things differently there. Like, for example, talk. In my travels abroad, and most particularly in this last week in Paris, I have heard people say "Do you speak English" instead of "Hello". I mean, how rude is that? No wonder people are rude back!
I find that the denizens of touristy places are so used to this unthinking doltishness that at the merest glimpse of an attempt to speak their language they spread out in a radiant grin and proceed to treat me with the benevolent condescention of one who is talking to a precocious and eager child.
So, if you want to get the best out of your time in a foreign country, wherever you yourself come from, learn a few basic phrases. Please, thank you, sorry, excuse me, that kind of thing. Hello and goodbye will also serve you well. If you can stretch your vocabulary to "you'll have to excuse me, I don't speak (insert language here) very well", you'll be treated like a king. A nifty trick is to find out if there are any local holidays on during your visit, and pick up the traditional greeting (the equivalent of the English "merry Christmas" or "happy Thanksgiving", for example). While in Greece I found out what the Greek for "happy Easter" was, and it got me bowed in and out of hotels and restaurants. People are just so appreciative of any recognition you give to their local culture and customs.
And for god's sake, don't ask them if they speak English. They will treat you with all the contempt such an idiotic question deserves.
I've recently added another tool to my Polite Tourist repertoire: where the phrase "do you speak English?" would normally go in a conversation, I say instead - in English, and after having greeted them in their own language - "I'm so sorry, but I don't speak X". This usually achieves the exact same result, inasmuch as they respond by letting me know if they speak English or not, but with wider smiles and nicer feelings all round!