The photo above shows what happens when I think I understand the language, but I really don’t. My high-school and college French goes only so far. In larger cities, most establishments that deal with tourists have someone who can speak English. In smaller towns in France, it almost seems a point of pride with the locals that they only speak French.
It is not easy to be a vegetarian in Europe, and the language barrier does not make it any easier. One day last fall in the Alsatian town of Colmar, just on the border between Germany and France, I tried to order a vegetarian version of the local favorite: tarte flambee. It’s more or less a pizza, with little or no tomato sauce. I read the entire menu and questioned the waitress as best I could. I settled on a tarte which I thought would be covered with Muenster cheese. The tarte arrived and I sat staring at it in shock. It was covered with what looked like about half a pound of shaved ham–very fine ham, but I don’t eat ham.
When I called the waitress back, the entire small restaurant fell silent. Forks hung in midair as locals stared in disbelief at the woman who didn’t want any meat. “Madame,” the waitress exclaimed, “C’est Muenster!” Meekly, I pushed all the “Muenster-Ham” toward the center and ate around the edges.
All over Europe, it seems that more and more people speak English. I think it is a school requirement in some countries. France seems to be the exception. Granted, the French have a proud cultural heritage they want to protect. I also suspect they don’t want to speak English because they figure that English-speaking visitors will correct their pronunciation or grammar. They are certainly quick enough to correct my French.
I am far from fluent, but I pride myself on getting by. One of my proudest moments as a tourist was the time a French-speaking person in Paris asked me for directions and seemed to understand my answer. At least he went off in direction I pointed. I just have to make sure I never give anyone menu advice.
Join me next time for more adventures exploring art, history and daily life in Europe!