Parlez-vous Français?

At some point in the last six months to a year, my wife, Louella, and I decided we’d make a trip to Europe this summer. After, deciding on Europe as a destination, it was time to narrow that down to something manageable in 2-3 weeks. Our college-age son, Sean, didn’t want to go, so the discussions on possible destinations came down to Louella and me, as well as Nicole, our high school-age daughter.

We reasonably quickly narrowed things down to Italy, Spain, and France, and would have liked to have gone to all three. However, after looking more into the practicality of trying to see all we might want to see, and having our original three week allotment shrink a bit, we decided to narrow it down to two countries. Deciding on which two was a challenge. We all had different priorities for our top two picks. Louella was interested in Spain and Italy, and not so much France. Nicole, who’s taken a year of high school French, was primarily interested in France and Italy, and not so much Spain. Spain has always been a place I’ve wanted to visit (for some unexplainable reason, I’ve always had in the back of my mind that it might be nice to live there one day, though I have no clue how I got that notion), and the other two countries are both of strong interest that would make it fairly hard to choose between them.

Initially we were planning to make our way around whichever countries we picked on our own, either renting a car and driving around, getting around by train, or employing some combination of modes of transportation. We’ve taken a lot of extended road trips in the past, where it was mostly one town a day, with various attractions enroute and possibly also in the towns and cities where we stayed. However, all of those were in the USA, and we’ve generally focused on National Parks and such, rather than large cities. With Europe, though, not only would we be talking about some big cities, some of which have reputations as places to avoid driving, but the likelihood of unfamiliar driving laws and conventions, and the language barrier.

Yeah, the language barrier…. I took three years of Spanish in high school (a very long time ago). I’m definitely not fluent, but I can read it reasonably well, understand someone speaking if they slow down enough to let my ears and brain parse the words and translate as they go, and speak it sufficiently to eventually communicate with someone who has enough patience. Louella also took some Spanish at some point in the past, but probably remembers about as much of that as I do of my college Russian (hint: not much). And, of course, Nicole has had that first year of high school French. You get the picture.

After thinking about that for awhile, I got the notion that it might be a good idea to check into some organized tours. Once we did that, and decided to go down that route — for a first trip to Europe, I felt strongly we’d end up seeing a lot more, and enjoying it more, if we could avoid the “admin” stuff (like trying to figure out road routes, train schedules, where we could and couldn’t drive, etc.) — narrowing down our country selection became simple. There were at least a couple of good options that combined France and Spain, but nothing terribly interesting that combined France and Italy, and, due to geography, Spain and Italy just wouldn’t make sense. I did find one option that included all three countries, but it felt a bit too “buffet”, and we generally aren’t big buffet fans. (In case you’re curious, the tour we ended up selecting was the Highlights of France and Spain tour from Trafalgar Tours. Of course, we’ll see how it works out in a little while, but, at least on paper, or a CRT screen in this case, it seems to have a nice balance of breadth and depth.)

Making that decision was a big relief in terms of the planning of the trip. There was still enough other stuff to do. For example, one of my favorite parts of a road trip-style vacation — and, though I’m not doing the driving this time, it still is a road trip, with a mix of single and double night stops — is the opportunity to indulge my main hobby, photography. A few years back, I switched from a couple of aging 35mm SLR cameras to a similarly capable digital camera. With 35mm cameras, dealing with a whole bunch of film, and getting the film processed, was a pain in the butt, and expensive, but it was a no brainer in terms of technical considerations. You just bought enough film for what you needed (and could always pick up more on the road if need be), had to deal with temperature, and then had to fill out a bunch of envelopes for getting the stuff processed, and pay a bunch of money when you picked it up.

With digital, though, while you save a bunch of money on film and processing, you have to deal with a number of other considerations for a trip of any length. For a road trip of any length, odds are you won’t have enough space in your memory cards to store all your photos. In fact, with the resolution I use, and the number of photos I tend to take, I could easily go through the memory cartridges in a single day with an attractive enough agenda. The two previous road trips we’ve taken with my digital camera were within the USA, and we had a rental car, so we just brought a laptop computer with a CD burner in it for backing up each day’s photos. In this cases, though, we weren’t sure if that would be the way to go. Not only would there be electrical power differences to consider, but the notion of toting a computer around while part of a tour group wasn’t the most comfortable. We’d have to solve the power issue anyway to deal with charging the camera’s batteries. On the other side of things, I looked at a whole bunch of potential solutions, and we went back and forth on different possibilities a number of times, but did end up circling back to the laptop, with the side benefit that we can use it for occasional Internet access during our trip.

Another consideration was that I really wanted to learn at least some French since we’d be spending a fair amount of time in France. I’ve heard all the stories of how the French supposedly look down on you if you don’t speak French, or if you do try and speak it badly. A good friend of mine who lives in France also assured me that many French do speak English, so it wouldn’t be too big a handicap not to know French over there. The bottom line for me, though, is that I feel that, if you’re visiting someone else’s country, it is worth at least making an effort to try to speak the local language. My oral Spanish isn’t great, but I do remember that, when I did try to speak Spanish in restaurants and such on a trip to Mexico City a number of years back, the people really seemed to appreciate that, even though they could speak English. I wanted to at least make an effort to be able to do that in France, but had never even attempted to learn French before.

My first thought was to try and find a book. I looked at a local mall bookstore and came across “French For Dummies” and “French for Complete Idiots”. Those were highly tempting given how inadequate I felt with French. I mean I could actually figure out the meaning of some written French from the combination of knowing English (i.e. and the fairly strong influence of the French language in modern English), having studied Spanish, and having been a fairly avid language student back in high school and college (besides my high school Spanish, I took both German and Russian in college). I couldn’t even begin to pronounce it, though, and the notion of learning solely from a book didn’t seem like it would be an ideal way to address that. I decided to look around the web, and one of the first things I came across was an on-line course from the BBC called French Steps. It was geared primarily at English travelers, and coupled recordings of spoken language with some fairly common scenarios a traveler might face, and exercises to help reinforce the content. After going through the entire course, I still feel pretty inadequate, but a lot less so than before, and I think I at least have somewhat of a handle on the strange, to my mind anyway, pronunciation rules.

As an aside, I might mention that I think I’m now getting a lot better appreciation for why English spelling is so screwed up compared to, say, Spanish, German, or Russian. Of course, part of that is that we get our words from so many different language, with differing pronunciation versus spelling rules. But one thing that really struck me was how different the rules of spelling versus pronunciation are in French versus even Spanish or German, which, despite being different from one another, still have a fair amount in common in terms of the basics. French is way more complex, because the same word may be pronounced very differently depending on the word that follows it. For example, if I say, “parlez-vous français ?” (i.e. “do you speak French?”), the word “vous”, which is the polite form for “you”, is pronounced “voo” (i.e. rhymes with “boo”). However, if I say, “vous allez où ?” (i.e. “where are you going?”), the word “vous” is pronounced “vooz” (i.e. rhymes with “booze”). The reason is because, in the first case, “vous” is followed by a word beginning with a consonant, so the trailing consonant isn’t pronounced, while, in the second case, “vous” is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, so the ending “s” is pronounced. But I digress…

Since finishing that course, I’ve also been doing a bit of reading in a workbook Nicole had from her French class that she’ll also continue using next year. It is a set of highly silly short stories called French Mini-stories for Look, I Can Talk. When I say silly, I’m talking stuff like someone who’s not happy because she doesn’t have anything important, so she goes to Brad Pitt and asks him to give her the Golden Gate Bridge. Brad tells her that’s not important to him, but he has a cat who is special to him. So Brad gives the girl the cat, and that makes her so happy she goes to see the President of the United States to let him know how important this cat is. I’m kind of wondering if these stories were written in the sixties! Weird stuff aside, though, it’s been interesting to see how far I could get in these non-traveler-oriented stories, and I’ve found I’ve gotten a reasonable way. The extra bits I’ve learned from these stories, however outlandish they are on the surface, have really helped immensely in expanding my vocabulary and my comfort in at least understanding the written language.

It will be very interesting to see how all this translates into real life once I arrive in Paris Friday afternoon. I’m thinking I may actually end up gleaning a decent amount of what people say, though I may still end up feeling highly tongue-tied when it comes time to try and speak. However, it turns out, though, I’m glad I did take the time to start learning French. It’s been awhile since I tried learning a new language, and I can now say that it is still something I enjoy immensely.

Add alongside of all this figuring out where to get some Euro dollars ahead of the trip (without paying exorbitant airport rates for the conversion), trying to figure out what clothes to pack for a two and a half week trip with a variety of potential weather conditions, and, even more challenging, how to fit that in a smaller suitcase than I’ve used in the past in order to conform with the tour company’s luggage size restrictions, and so on, and there just seemed to be a lot to do to get ready. At some point, though, things get down to the wire, and it’s time to say enough is enough, and just get ready to enjoy the trip. That time is now.

Our flight leaves Los Angeles early this evening, which means catching a shuttle van up to LAX in the relatively early afternoon given security procedures and check-in time requirements and such. That puts us in Paris around 2 p.m. on Friday.