Parle vous Francais?

 Sunset behind the Eiffel Tower

sunset eiffelWhen asked for travel tips, most people led me to believe that France was a chauvinistic-racist place. I was advised, “Nobody speaks English, so you better not get lost” or “even if they know English they will refuse to speak it” or “ they are snobs” and so on. I am sure these views were based on some bad experience, but my experiences were, uniformly, quite the reverse.
Consider this: at every Metro station there is an Information Desk, where the receptionist gives you a free map and painstakingly marks the route for you. She does not speak Queen’s English, but enough to guide you in an alien maze. Every time I had to change trains I found someone to guide me in English. One friendly guy, who spoke no English, caught me by the hand and dragged me to the platform where he thought I ought to be standing for my train. On another occasion, a lady walking her baby in a perambulator tried to convey a series of left and right turns I needed to take in a sequence, to reach my destination. Her poor English was not penetrating my poorer navigation. She saw that on my face and decided to take charge: she said “kom wiz me” and proceeded to walk me through nearly kilometer of twists and turns, until she could give me a clear pointer. They love their language may be, but they are cosmopolitan enough to help.
The US, they say, is a melting pot of several cultures. So too is France. I counted several nationalities in my office in a small town 150 km from Paris. There was an Italian, a Spaniard, a West Indian, an Algerian, a Brit and even a third generation Polish guy; the guy who drove me around town was a Serb. All this, in a factory of 200 people situated in a town of 1.2 lakh people! My Indian colleague said that occasionally, someone would tap his shoulder at the supermarket and ask “ Saar, thamizh theriyuma?”. Paris, without doubt, has even more variety: I was driven by taxi drivers from former French colonies — Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritius etc. With it came cuisine from the colonies: I ate delicious Falafel in a Tunisian street cafe. There was no dearth of Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants. I did business with a Vietnamese Accountant. Why, I was even solicited in Hindi (by a local professional) near the Moulin Rouge — that’s customer service! It seemed that I had located an international Paradise.

Moulin Rouge at Night

And yet, there are rumblings beneath the surface. A Mauritian Taxi driver (who spoke good English and some Hindi) talked to me about his life. Forty years in Paris, he was at peace (so it seemed). His daughter was a Baccalaureate in International Commerce, his son was a Muay Thai champion; he owned a small flat and his taxi earned him enough to afford an annual vacation to Mauritius. Yet deep inside, he had a grievance. “Foreigners are always underpaid. The people from the colonies are economically exploited. Soon after the war, they were welcome. But in the seventies and eighties all that changed” . I asked, “Surely, they can get a citizenship?” He said “sometimes they do, but it doesn’t always change things. They may not even get an apartment in a decent locality”. “That shouldn’t affect you, you run your own taxi, right?”. “Wrong, because as a foreigner, I pay more taxes!”. Apparently there is no such thing as an unmixed blessing even in Paradise !


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