An embarrassed American finds himself at sea in a French-speaking copy shop.
I never feel ill at ease in a country where I don’t speak the language. Whether it’s Tibetan or Swahili, Tagalog or Sinhala, I just smile, act out, do some sign language, and make friends. But French, French is a different story. When faced with French, I flee in terror. All of the languages I have ever studied crowd my brain and I can’t find my bearings. My failure with French always makes me feel that I have failed as a human being. Is it not the language of the civilized world? Or have the French just convinced us that this is so?

I needed to make 85 copies of a simple two-page handout for a workshop I was teaching at the Geneva Writers’ Conference. When I entered a big camera store that I was told had copy machines, I followed signs and arrows around to the back for “photocopies,” a good English word in this French-speaking international Swiss city.

I was still jet-lagged from my long trip from San Francisco so I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I knew how this errand would go at home: I’d find the machine, get a counter cartridge, set the controls for 85 copies stapled in the upper left corner, hit the start button, pick up my copies, and pay. I’d be in and out in five minutes tops.

The young man behind the counter looked blankly at me when I asked in English if I could use the machine. I tried again and he replied in French. I blushed with embarrassment, feeling foolish, understanding nothing. I showed him the sheets I wanted to copy, pointed to the machine, and tried to make him understand that I wanted to use it. He came and stood next to me, as uncertain of how to proceed as I was. My embarrassment grew as I stood mute, trying to think of a way to communicate what I wanted. Why did I not remember anything beyond the most rudimentary French words? Was I not an educated individual? No, I was no better than your everyday barbaric monolingual American buffoon turned loose in a bastion of European refinement.

He seemed to understand that I wanted to use the machine, and by pointing at my document I conveyed that I needed my copies stapled. His face lit up and he scurried behind the counter, emerging with a stapler. I had been trying to ask if the machine could do this, but never mind, it was progress. I couldn’t determine what the cost of copying would be. Two signs on the wall suggested two prices, the lowest of which appeared to be 10 centimes. But how would I keep track of the number of copies?

More babbling in English and replies in French, many gestures this way and that, and suddenly I understood. Of course, it’s coin operated! Ah, I pulled out a bill, offered it to him, and uttered, shamelessly, “Change,” trying to make it sound French. He shook his head and pointed around the corner to the cash registers.

No one there spoke English either, but my dog-like utterances of “Change, gracias, I mean,si’l vous plait, change, change, si’l vous plait danke,” got my point across, and moments later I had four five-franc coins in hand. Back at the machine, I fed in money, got the job started, and stood back to watch the sheets spitting out.

When they were finished I repeated the process with my second sheet, then began stapling at another counter. A few copies into it the machine stopped. I turned just as the clerk hurried around the counter. We got to the machine at the same time, and I pointed to the paper tray saying it must be out of paper, because I thought I had put in plenty of money. He pointed to the coin box and muttered something, then lifted the cover, moved my sheet out of the way, put down a receipt he needed to copy, stuck a key in the coin box to activate the machine, then hit the start button just as I was blurting “Stop! Stop! I’ll lose track of my count-” when he too realized his mistake as the machine began running off 60 copies of his receipt-“Merde!” he barked and slammed something to make it stop.

Embarrassed, he took his copies and gave me an apologetic look. I fed more money into the machine, hoping for the best. Later it stopped again, hungry for more money, and I dropped in my last coin (20 francs now!). Eventually it spit out the last copy.

Relieved, I pushed a button on the coin box to get my change but nothing came out. As I stood there contemplating one final foray into monolingual debasement, the clerk appeared at my side. So I tried to explain, now feeling ridiculous, with gestures and worthless English, that I needed to get my unspent money back. He opened the paper tray to see if this time the machine was indeed out of paper.

“No, I’m finished, finis,” I said, trying to pronounce the word correctly, pointing to the coin box showing money left over. A look of comprehension passed over his face and he said, “One moment,” (English!) and went to get someone.

I resumed stapling, then he came back with a woman, explaining in French, and she unlocked the coin box, then disappeared. Minutes later she returned, spoke to me in French holding out some coins, and I stammered yet again that I didn’t speak French. “Oh!” she gasped, looking as embarrassed as I felt. She spoke to another woman across the room, who looked up, said “Oui,” and the woman handed me the coins with a relieved smile.

I didn’t know what to do except pocket the money, say “Merci beaucoup” and really mean it, even though “gracias” almost shouldered it aside in my addled brain. I finished my stapling, packed up and looked around for the clerk to thank him for enduring this ordeal with me, but he had vanished, perhaps to avoid any further “conversation” with the American buffoon.

On the way out it occurred to me, though, with the sudden clarity of all fresh thoughts, that I wasn’t the only monolinguist in the shop. As far as English was concerned, everyone I spoke to was a monolinguist, and even though I admit it was a sorry excuse for me to cling to, the thought gave me a certain comfort. I shouldn’t have beaten myself up so much. In dealing with me they were as impaired as I was dealing with them. They were functionally monolingual, and I was a stranger in their midst.

Partway back to the hotel I pulled the coins from my pocket to see how much they’d given me. I was surprised to find 15 francs. Even at the lowest posted price my 170 copies should have cost 17 francs, so I got almost all of my money back! Sensing the karmic correctness of this result, I knew what I had to do. No, not return and embarrass myself further trying to explain their error. I would listen, without fear, to my French language tapes when I got home.



About Larry’s Corner:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on and on As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.

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