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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Importance of Learning a Foreign Language

Last week, I found myself standing in line at a bakery around the corner from my apartment, waiting to pick up a couple of baguettes to bring home for dinner and the next day's breakfast. As I often do here in Paris, I stared down everyone in the line trying to guess if they were Parisian or not. Usually, tourists seem to flock to the bakeries in the morning to pick up croissants and bread for breakfast, so for the most part the evening crowd at the bakery consists of neighborhood clientele. There was one lady in front of me though that seemed to be different. Judging by the way she was dressed and skin tone, I guessed Portuguese or Spanish, though I am no expert on the matter.

As she ordered what she wanted, she resorted to pointing at things and making noises like "unh" and "eh" and "ah". These were more like things that an infant might mutter. I thought to myself how I knew that feeling when I visited bakeries in Hungary and Poland, when I had absolutely no idea what to say, other than the words for "hello," "please," and "thank you." In between those pleasantries, I resorted to guttural noises. It's not because we want to sound like this, it's just we don't know what else to do, and so we are left with nonsensical gibberish to explain our desire.

It is while I was regarding this scene that I began to think how this lady, who could be considered very intelligent with a deep vocabulary in her own culture is rendered just short of helpless here in Paris. It was also during this moment that I began to think of the importance of learning a foreign language, which leads to the topic of this week's article.

I am big supporter of those that make the efforts to learn a foreign language. To start off, I believe that it doesn't even really matter which foreign language one tries to learn. Rather, the process itself is a valuable experience which promotes a greater understanding of the world around you. I remember once talking with a friend who was considering studying abroad in Greece, but decided against it because she felt that there would be little use for learning Greek. Perhaps she may never speak Greek again after leaving the country, but the process of learning a foreign language gives insight to cultural nuances that an outsider could never learn. It allows a the student of the language to think in a different way, to see things as someone in the language's country would see it. More words, more wisdom, more understanding.

Not every word or phrase can be translated literally from one language to another. One example I hear often in French is n'importe quoi. The best translation I can think of is "no matter what" in English, but in context, the phrase c'est vraiment n'importe quoi! is made ridiculous when translated to its literal English equivalent, "That is really no matter what!" One might even find that they prefer certain expressions in other languages compared to their own. For me at least, words like méchant and bouger seem to flow better than their counterparts in English.

There are some downsides to the learning process. Compared to where I used to be when I lived in the United States, I sometimes feel like I take more time to speak than in the past. I spend time searching for words in my own language far more often today. In March 2009, I was back in St. Louis for two days while I was waiting on some visa paperwork to be processed in Chicago. I spent one evening at a friend's house, barbecuing and enjoying being outside in unseasonably warm weather. As my friends and I stood around the grill, looking intently at the burgers (as men usually do when a grill is around), I tried to ask if I needed to get the spatula. Only problem is I couldn't remember that damn word. The conversation went like this:

"Do you want me to get the...the...uh.."
"John-Paul, think before you speak."
"I honestly forgot the word for that thing to flip the burgers."
"A spatula? Wow you are getting dumb over there."

I'm lucky that I get the best of both worlds here: I speak English at work most of the time, and have accessibility to speak French whenever I want to as well. Otherwise, I would probably make more blunders like the one above.

To sum up my argument, if you have an interest in opening your eyes to the world around you, take a shot at learning a new language. Though you may remember next to none of the words down the road, the process of learning a foreign language allows us to come closer to understanding the differences between cultures, which in turn brings us all closer together.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Friday, August 6, 2010

Getting Robbed (in Paris)

I am often asked if Paris is a safe city. The quick answer is, yes, it is. Most of the crime tends to stay outside the city in the banlieues, or suburbs of Paris, quite the opposite of many cities in the United States. And even then, some of the suburbs are really nice, akin to Beverly HIlls or the Hamptons. However, sometimes some petty theft, street fighting, and the occasional riot seeps its way past the Périphérique and into Paris proper.

A week from yesterday, I was out at a picnic on the water at the Eastern end of Île St Louis with Julie's colleagues, as well as a few friends of mine from work. It was a good mix of people from all over the world, and it was fun jumping back and forth between French and English. I had a French friend who was en route but unfortunately couldn't find where we were, so I offered to come up onto the bridge above the tip of the island and see if I could find him.

Once on the bridge, I started to walk the length of it alone to see if I could see where he was. I noticed a few guys walking the opposite way on the same side of the sidewalk, but thought nothing of it. Though it was 12:45am, I have never felt the least bit threatened in this city.

One of the guys in the group asked me if I had a lighter, to which I replied no and tried to keep walking. The guys surrounded me in a half circle, with my back to the back of the bridge, just over the Seine. Another asked, "Well, what else do you have in your pockets?" I showed them my metro pass, and even offered it to them, which they gladly took. I even said "I have a shitty cell phone if you want it." I was hoping that distracting them away from my wallet might help, but of course, it just delayed the inevitable.

Two guys fished into my pockets and took out my wallet and my camera, which for some reason, I thought to bring with me that night. One started sorting through all the cards in my wallet and cried out every time he found something that looked like a credit card. I pointed out that a couple of them weren't credit cards (which they were), but I believe they were just happy they had something that they could get money from. "Walk with us this way," one of them said.

During this process of being escorted, I started to think to myself that I had already prepped myself for this. In April, I took the oral exam for the U.S. Department of State. If I had passed, I would have had an almost guaranteed position working in embassies and consulates around the world, occasionally in countries that few would ever dream of visiting, nor perhaps even knew existed. I figured if I had passed the exam, that I would be mugged somewhere in the world, and if I just kept my cool, the guys would get what they want and get on with their evenings. I felt lucky that these guys were so calm during the whole process and that they were not some 16 year old novices waving their switchblades in my face as I frantically try to empty my pockets.

I imagine they were expecting a fuss or someone to get angry with them, but internally, I felt nothing. They asked if they could run with my card to the ATM and withdraw some money with my code, and I told them (though I have no idea why I said this) that I preferred to walk with them and do it myself.

It was around this point, I got the impression that these guys started to feel bad about the whole incident. One of them even offered me a cigarette, to which I replied that I don't smoke. "Oh, that's good for your health," he replied. They said they would give me my phone and camera back, so not to stress too much.

We finally arrived at an ATM, and they handed me back my wallet, with everything still inside except 25 euros cash, and also my metro pass. Four of the guys stood with their backs to me, while the fifth stationed himself next to me while I typed in my PIN at the ATM. He started to turn around to see the screen, and suddenly jumped back, saying "Oh, pardon" when he saw that I was still entering my PIN. As far as muggers go, this had to be one of the more polite bands out there. It was almost respectful, except that they took 200, 200, and 400 euros out of my account on three consecutive withdrawals. After the third, the guys slowly walked away all together, turning around to see if I was following them. In all, they made off with 825 euros, my camera, and my phone.

When I got back down to the picnic spot a few minutes later, I found that a couple people had been frantically searching for me, since I had not answered my phone and the friends I was searching for had been at the picnic for about 10 minutes already. After telling a little of the story, Julie called the police, who were nice enough to drive Julie and I around while we looked at random groups standing around the Bastille area to see if I could identify the muggers. We even stopped a public bus so I could take a look at some guys that were being arrested inside to see if they were my friends from earlier. I felt a little embarrassed getting out of the police car with so many people staring at me both on the bus, and on the street, as a crowd had started gathering around the scene. It didn't look like them, so we got back in the car and went to go chase some more bad guys. After an hour or so, they dropped us off, said sorry, and wished us luck.

So in the aftermath, the guys have not been caught, and it doesn't look like the bank is going to refund me. Apparently since I entered my pin, they are saying that I could have prevented it and so on. I'm not too bummed about it. First, I wasn't hurt. Second, it gives me a pretty good story to tell my readers.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at