A Travel Vignette

From a French Travel Diary (1990)

Of Paris Cabs, Blonde Girls and Te-le-phone Shoppes

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, June 1990

PARIS - As anybody who'd spent June 1990 in Europe knows, it was the month of the "Mundial," the World Cup, the soccer championship of the world, the greatest show on Earth - by far outpacing the "Super Bowl," the "World Series," or the "Stanley Cup" by almost any measure. Except that it was not held in North America (although this may be remedied in 1994).

It is hard to describe the non-Americans' passion for soccer to an American who's been brought up on a steady diet of hot dogs, pop corn, coke, beer, and/or all those other (un)healthy things which most Americans associate with sports. Yet, it is what we'd experienced during most of June 1990 -- sans the hot dogs, pop corn... etc.

By the time I'd arrived in Paris, it was the playoff time, as we would say. Since England and Ireland were still in it, I was hoping to see at least some of the games with English narration. Which is almost as outlandish as expecting to view a French channel in Chicago! Naturally, as we'd done so often even in Belgrade or Montenegro (YU), I tried tuning in to CNN from my elegant La Defense hotel room. But, all I got was a fuzzy screen!? Flicking the channels, I discovered, to my surprise, that I was able to get the Russian television on channel 19 with no difficulties!? The Moscow television was showing a Tschaikowsky concert.

I called for help. A smiling young lady arrived. "Sorry, Sir" she said, "but the CNN channel is out." "Are you trying to tell me that you are now substituting the Russian television, which I can watch with no problems on Channel 19, for American channels?" I tried to put her on the spot. She blushed. "I hope not," she replied unsure if that was the right thing to say.

This incident reminded me of how much the Americans and the French have in common. Neither nation gives a hoot about the rest of the world... Take my taxi ride from the Orly airport into Paris, for example. As is, I hope, obvious by now to anyone who read the Vignette #1, my travel logistics were somewhat lacking. So, just as I arrived earlier on in Trieste, Italy, on a Sunday, and could not change my money, I also arrived in Paris on a Sunday. This time, I was able to change my money, but my favorite airport limo service was also closed. It was a Sunday, remember?...

So, I lined up for a taxi along with the rest of the tourists. To my surprise, a very good looking blonde drove up in her cab and got out. "La Defense?" I asked. "D' accord," she replied. She opened her trunk and motioned me to get my bags closer. I did. She just stood there without making any motion to help load the bags. "OK, lady," I thought to myself, "this is where you will find out what the equal opportunity employment is about." So, speaking in English, I firmly motioned her to move over and start loading my bags. She did. I did help her with the biggest of my cases, though.

Once inside the cab, I was stunned to see a pretty blonde girl, no more than three or four years' old, who was sprawling over the back seat. "Your daughter?" I asked the lady driver. "Ouis," she replied.

The little girl was a real doll. Not only did she seem perfectly unperturbed by having to make conversation with a stranger (not to mention a stranger who could not speak French), but she displayed some of the famed French flare even at such a young age. She curled up on top of me, looking mischievously at the various pins on my jean jacket.

Then, she proceeded to teach me French. "La guerre," she said pointing at the green pin from the Calgary Olympics which depicted a biathlon athlete shooting his rifle. "Le drapeau," she said pointing at my American flag pin. But what she said next surprised me the most. "La police," said pointing at the Statue of Liberty pin! The police? Maybe she knew more than I did... After all, the Statue did originate in France. I looked at the kid in bewilderment...

Then, as if realizing I was a slow learner, she'd start over again, "La guerre"... point...; "Le drapeau"... point...; "La police"...

The little girl made me feel sorry that I'd never studied French. It would have been fun to hear her explain why she thought Miss Liberty was a police woman. Then, as we slowly made our way into the center of Paris, I again thought of at least one thing which Americans have in common: a generally vast ignorance of other cultures and languages.

I recalled how on my previous visit to Paris I tried to buy a telephone adapter for my laptop computer. I tried my hotel staff, who didn't know what I was talking about, but did suggest I go to a shopping mall across the C.N.I.T. building of La Defense. When I got there, I quickly realized that this was a monstrous mall even by North American standards. Literally acres of stores were sprawled over at least three different levels. I had to get some directions. But alas, I spoke no French...

I walked into a store which looked like an optician's place. "Do you speak English?" I asked a clerk, instantly regretting it. You see, this kind of a question gives the French people a chance to say "no" -- something which they invariably do. This Frenchman, however, got downright panicky. He frantically waved his arms and said, "no... no... no, Monsieur." "That's OK," I replied. "No problem. I'll teach you." He had a baffled look on his face.. I thought he understood me.

"Te-le-phone shop?" I pronounced each syllable very slowly. I took a chance that the Frenchman would understand both words since they are used internationally. He did. "Oh, mais ouis," the clerk replied, and speaking in rapid French he pointed me in the right direction. "Merci," I said, "see, how easy it is to speak English?"

I repeated this trick a few of more times, and low and behold, I did find myself in front of the "te-le-phone shop." I even found there the wretched telephone adapter for my computer, and successfully transmitted a report from my Paris hotel room to the States. I felt as if English had triumphed over French... But still, it would have been better if I were able to tell them that - in French.  Must work on that...

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