Parlez-vous français?

By Autumn Palen

Photo is author’s own

In my junior (third) year of high school, I visited London and Paris with a handful of my classmates. My high school, the wonderfully fictional-sounding High Tech High, had something called “Intersession”. The week before spring break, every student was free to choose something they wanted to take part in for a week. Every event was hosted by the teacher, and it was usually something along the lines of surfing, or visiting restaurants, or, the one I usually chose, creative writing. Some offered international trips, like snorkeling in Belize, and, of course, a trip to London and Paris.

It was in the months leading up to this trip that I started to learn French. I went online, to websites offering free lessons, and learned as much as I could.  Much alluded me (like the pronunciation), but I learned basic phrases, numbers, how to say what time it was, how to ask if there was a bakery nearby. “Est-ce qu’il y a une boulangerie près d’ici?” was the first phrase that I fully memorized, and prided myself for doing so. I also learned the art of being exceptionally annoying. Well, I don’t know if it took me until age 16 to be annoying, but I certainly perfected it by then.As a teen with a newfound knowledge of basic French, not to mention, a complete fixation on  Doctor Who, I was an unstoppable tirade of irritation to those around me. Every conversation was an opportunity to bring up something cultural or etymological, some examples include, “Hey guys, Allons-y! Right guys? Right?” and “Oh man, counting by tens is so weird in French!” (I caught myself bringing up the latter topic recently and could tangibly feel the loathing that the other person was emitting).

No matter. On to the trip at hand.

When we landed in Heathrow after a 12-hour flight, I was unspeakably excited. This was the place I had been looking forward to visiting in all those months of planning. Being there became more and more of a reality to me, until it was actually real, and I was actually there. That first night, we missed our planned dinner on account of being in Customs for hours, so after settling into our Bed and Breakfast, we went to get fish and chips at a place a few blocks away. This is where I had the novelty of someone not understanding my accent (it was for the word “water”); I reveled in the experience. I was in a place where my accent wasn’t standard!

Photo is author’s own

London was a wonderful experience for those few days we were there. We made the standard tourist-y rounds: changing of the guard, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus. We rode the Tube, saw a play (The 39 Steps), and visited Henry VIII’s castle. Soon enough, we were en route to Paris, via Chunnel.

Paris was amazing; straight out of anyone’s prototypical idea of a European city. Tall, pale apartments above quaint, worn stores, small cars on rain-slicked streets, and, pharmacies everywhere. Free healthcare, vive le France.

Our agenda was just as tourist-y in the City of Lights: Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe, a visit to Versailles and an attempt at eating Escargot (verdict: not bad).

Photo is author’s own

I managed to practice my French, somewhat. I ordered a crepe in French, and was answered in French. Though I didn’t quite understand the reply, I gleaned that the waiter wanted to know what I wanted to drink.  It’s possible he said something completely different but he brought me a water in any case.  In the Eiffel Tower, I asked the security guard what time the metro closed, and he answered in French as well. I may not have understood a single word he said, but…we still made it to the metro on time.

I also went to a comic book store on my free day with a few friends, and with each question I asked in French, I was answered in English. That didn’t stop me from continuing to speak French, although it should have.

Bizarrely enough, I was too shy to test out my French on the woman at the front desk of our hotel. She stared blankly when I told her, in English, that the lights in my room would not turn on. Hours later, my teacher approached the front desk with the same problem, and help actually arrived (she also asked in English, but a more insistent English). As one might imagine, she was one of the most fantastic teachers anyone could ever hope to have.

As I type this, it’s with the atmospheric hum of French conversation carrying across the room behind me. I’m at the French consulate, as an intern in the Film and Television department. I declared a minor in French during my second semester at USC, and heard word of this position through emails sent to those who were studying the language. So, it’s probably fair to say that the trip had an impact on my life.

Featured image from Wikipedia

Autumn Palen is a sophomore majoring in Film & TV Production, with a minor in French. She is from San Diego, California and enjoys listening to music, watching TV, traveling outside of her usual parameters whenever she can, and drawing incessantly. She also loves learning about languages and lifestyles from all around the world.