Every now and then, some poor lost soul mistakes me for a French person and asks for directions. I take it as the ultimate compliment that they think I look like a person who lives in Paris; the only problem is that they also think I look like a person who understands French.
Usually I either don’t know what they’re looking for or don’t understand the question well enough to help. “Désolée,” I reply. “Je ne connais pas.”
A couple weeks ago, though, something changed.
A youngish woman approached me as I was walking across Île Saint-Louis and asked if I knew how to get to a particular hotel. Pleased with myself for having understood everything she said, I nevertheless launched into my default response because, well, I didn’t know the hotel. “Non, désolée, je ne connais pas,” I said and started to walk away. But the woman wouldn’t leave it at that. She fumbled with a paper map as I tried to figure out what more I could say to her.
“Sur l’Île Saint-Louis?” I asked. Because if the hotel was on the island, I had a pretty good suspicion where it would be. The island has only three roads, two of which are quiet and residential and overlook the banks of the Seine. The third, which runs straight down the middle, bustles with all of the island’s shops, restaurants, and – likely – hotels.
“Oui,” she confirmed as she continued to struggle with the map. I glanced down and realized why she was having trouble—she hadn’t unfolded it enough to show Île Saint-Louis.
Not having the words to explain that, I just reached over, unfolded the map one more time and pointed to the Pont de Sully, where we were standing. “Nous sommes ici,” I said. Then I noticed that someone had drawn a thick black line running right past where we were standing to a circled building on the main road of the island. Her hotel, I assumed.
“Ah, oui!” I said in my best impression of French surprise. I pointed at the street behind us and instructed her to tournez à gauche. I wished I could offer more nuanced instructions like, “It’s on that road at the other end of the island. Continue past the one intersection with a traffic light.” But I had no idea how to say any of that, so I left her with an awkward, “Et voilà. À gauche.” Not glamorous French by any means, but it worked.
And then, after we’d both gone our separate ways, it hit me why I’d understood her so well. Her French was distinctly un-French. In fact, from her accent, her appearance, and the fact that she was in Paris in August, I was pretty sure she was American. Our conversation would probably have gone much more smoothly if we’d spoken English, but darn it if we weren’t two proud visitors determined to use our elementary French.