Saturday, May 19, 2012

France for the Novice.

By Rob Watson

First Wife and I had a few extra dollars, so we decided to spend them visiting my brother in Spain, by way of Merry Old England, Scotland, Belgium, and France. People in each of these, other than France, were courtious, friendly, and helpful... Well, there was one old gentleman in London who was somewhat put out by my driving on his side of the road.

In each of England, Belgium, and Spain, people spoke, or tried to speak English when speaking with us. Later visits to Germany, Denmark, Singapore, and Mexico  people tried the same. France, not so much. My feeling while in France was that many of the people understood me fairly well, and pretended not to understand at all. I am told the French will loosen up some if one tries to speak their language. At the time I only spoke and understood one word "thanks" and I still cannot spell it. Later I learned "I cannot speak French" and " enter, if you please". At times "Go to Hell" would have been something I might have used, but I doubt it would have been helpful.

We arrived in France on the ferry. After renting a car and driving a ways, we decided to stop and eat. The place was a small cafe in a small town. We and a group of, apparently, locals were the only customers... mid afternoon. We were given a menu, which I could not read. First Wife had taken French but she could not read it either. I noticed the locals got what appeared to be a huge bowl of french fries and fish. It is fair to say I did not then, nor do I now, know the words for "Yes, I agree". I am sure, however, the French for "NO" is very similar to the American word for "NO".

When the waiter returned, entirely in French, he asked what we wished to order... I think. I pointed to the table with the locals and said, in English, "WE want that" The waiter entirely ignored me and said the French words for "Steak and Fries" (I recognized those words from an article about France which advised never order "steek and frees" pronounced with long "e".) First Wife (A self explanatory term) recognized the words as well and also ignored my insistent No! No! No! and kept saying Yes, yes, yes in English. (Now if the guy could understand YES in English, why could he not understand NO in English?) The end result was a few french fries and 8 ounces of round steak, fried to shoe leather, for the princely sum of $28 each. ( back when $9.95 would have bought you a fine Porterhouse in any fancy American restaurant)

We drove to Brussels (then and now, the most expensive city in Europe) and began to look for a place for the night. In the first hotel, the clerk addressed me in French. to which I responded with "Uuh". He then switched to perfect English. ( perhaps uuh is French for DUH, or more likely, " I am a dumb American, in way over my head") I inquired as to the price of a room and was told $120 (when $20 would have gotten you a nice room in Holiday Inn) I thanked the man in English and left. We went a few blocks along the same street and stopped at a hotel whos external appearance was not as sharp as the previous one.

When I entered, the clerk addressed me in French. (I don't think I look French, two grandmothers and one grandfather are mostly of German stock, and a bit of Scotch Irish) "Uuh" was still my only utterance. The clerk immediately switched to perfect English. His rooms were $140 a night. As I left "I'm going the wrong way down this street." escaped my lips. We went back to the first place, where the clerk welcomed me back in perfect English.

Next day, after wandering around a bit and unsuccessfully looking for well hidden relatives, we headed for Paris. At the French border, there were numerous road signs explaining... well, I don't know. First Wife could not read them either. (Next day at breakfast, before I discovered the car had been broken into and everything except our money and passports had been stolen, First Wife points to the wrapper from the butter and says "See this says there is salt in the butter." I admit I was very wrong to reply "I can taste the salt in the butter, what I want to know is what the road signs say")

I thought our next task should be to report the theft of our luggage. Our desk clerk told us to go to the American Embassy, and gave directions... In English, no less! At the embassy, the gates were closed and locked, A holiday in France or the US... I found a bell and gave it fits. After a bit A marine in his dress blues (I love that uniform) came to the locked gate. He carefully explained the embassy was closed for the holiday. We could not come in, we should come back tomorrow. Inside me things were starting to boil. I stuck my head into the gap between the bars, looked the young man in the eye, and in a firm voice said "Son, I watch the news, I know these gates can be scaled, let me in or I will climb over!" He took me at my word and found someone to let us in, the easy way.

The Marine and one other person were all we saw there. The other person was talking on the phone, apparently to American Express. At directions from the phone, he tossed several thousand dollars in American Express Travelers checks into the trash. His reaction and mine were the same, complete astonishment.

The embassy man turned to me and patiently listened to my story. At the end he said he could not help me. He suggested we find a police station and report to them. Outside, a few yards from the embassy gate, we found one of those quaint little 2 foot square guard houses. Inside was a French policeman (Yes, I know they have a special name but I can't spell it either).  He eventually made us to understand there was a police station a block away, but it was not the place to report crimes. He did not know where the correct station was. I can say, without fear of contradiction, he was correct, and among all the native born French I met in that country, He is a hero and the most friendly and useful Frenchman I met there. Truely!

None of the other French police we met for the next six hours knew half so much as he knew. We got a first class walking tour of the main street there (NO, I can't spell it either) Along the way we took in the famous tower and the famous art museum (spelling). The flower gardens along the way were spectacular. I bought some film for my camera, $10 for a $1 roll. While resting outside the famous art museum, we met some other Americans who were also resting. They listened to my tale of woe. At the end the subject turned to prices there. The man concludes "It is one thing to have your stuff stolen, and entirely another to buy something and know you have been robbed."

Late in the afternoon, we were trying to quiz another policeman, and getting the same wrong answer, when an American businessman injected himself into the conversation. After translating both ways, he came to the same conclusion as I had. He suggested we go to our hotel and ask the clerk there. Back at the hotel, the clerk gave us proper direction to the correct police station. (I guess, if you ask the right question, you get a useful answer.)

At the police station we were lead to a detective's desk and he took our information and listened to our story. His English was good and he was pleasant and helpful, under the circumstances. At the end First Wife asked what were the chance we would get our luggage back. While the detective considered his answer,  I surmised "A cold day in Hell." The detective looked positively crushed.

We went to our airline office, conveniently located on the main street there. They suggested we should stay in Paris for another week before they could get our tickets replaced. ("Cold Day in Hell" came back to mind but I did not say it.) After a short discussion, I determined the tickets could also be replaced in Spain, where lodgings with my brother would be less expensive.

Next morning we took off driving for Spain. On this trip I learned that potatoes were "pomes de terre" and ham was "Jambone" or something like that. I could now order a ham sandwich. Near the end of the day I realized we would be traveling through Spain at night and had no Spanish money. We pulled off the super highway into a small town. I went into the nearest bank and asked the cashier if he could take my French Frank travelers checks and give me Spanish money. His reply "Of course I can". I signed over all my travelers checks. He started counting out french Franks. "Hey" says I, "You said you were going to give me Spanish money." His reply, "I can't give you Spanish money." Things were about to boil again, but he was out of reach. I stomped out of the bank and went across the street to a small bar. I didn't know the word for Beer but I got a ham sandwich, which was pretty good.

It was dark, we were approaching Spain. I was very unsettled over the money problem. A gas station appeared and I decided to solve one problem at least. After waiting several minutes for service, no one else was there, I pumped the gas myself. I made a note of the amount and took it out of my large cache of French money. After a few more minutes, the attendant came out, cleared the pump and spilled about a gallon of gas on the ground. I held out the money in my hand. he took it then began yelling in French. I decided getting in the car and driving off would be a bad idea so I just stood there while the attendant yelled, not talked, yelled. This went on for a minute or so until an American Businessman came rushing over. He asked, above the yelling from the attendant, what the problem was. I explained, above the yelling, what had happened. "This man wants you to pay for the gas he spilled on the ground". Well, he could have said so... I looked at the pump, counted the French equivalent of a dollar or so and all was peachy. I thanked the businessman, climbed into the car and headed out into the unknown.

So far in this story, I have been the victim of my own vast ignorance and social mistakes. For the rest of the story, The mistakes keep coming, but I get to be my own hero.

When we got to the Spanish boarder there was a huge plaza and several glass enclosed booths, like a set of toll booths on an American Highway. It was late by now. there was one attendant, and one car ahead of us. That car showed his papers and pulled ahead about 50 yards then stopped. I pulled up and showed our passports. The attendant inspected the passports, handed them back, smiled big, and waved us on. I knew we were on a toll road. I tried to explain that I had no Spanish money. Big smile, big wave.

In the meantime, the other car had been surrounded by half a dozen heavily armed police. The occupants were removed and the car was taken apart. Spare tire came out, seats came out, door panels were removed... I began to wonder how I would be able to put my car back together after my "Turn".

Several minutes went by before one of the police turned and looked at us. He frowned and angrily waved us passed. I hit the gas and didn't look back... onto a toll road, in the middle of the night, in a country whos language I could not speak. and with out a single paseda (worth about 1/4 of a cent).

Time was on my side. As we drove along there were service centers... food... gas... shopping... bars. Ah Ha!! Bars! Drunks will do anything for money! Next service center, I pull in, find the bar and wander inside. Two People. Bartender and drinker. All the lights are on. I walk up to the drinker, hold out a 100 frank note and say "Peastas" (The name for Italian money, I later discovered) The drinker looked at me as if I were nuts. But he appeared to be willing to give me another chance. I pushed the frank note in his direction again and repeated "Peastas" again. After about the fourth time he looked over at the bartender to see if he could make out what I wanted. The bartender shook his head then brightened. Clear evidence of another smart man. He said a single word "Pasedas". "Si, Si" I exclaimed, and handed him the 100 frank note he handed me 1500 pasedas (the correct exchange was 1900, I later learned. For reasons I hope you understand I have never begrudged this man his commission.) $25 was not going to go very far so I held out another 100 Frank Note and said "Pasadas". He nodded and counted out 1500 more. After two more exchanges I thought the $100 accumulated would buy food, gas, and tolls to Madrid. Fortunately I was right.

In all ways, England, Scotland, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, and, except for the cost, Belgium, were delightful places to see, visit, and tour.   It is clear to me, if you go to France, you should either learn the language, or take an American businessman. To end the tale, I must tell about the tickets.

When we arrived in Madrid and made contact with Brother, we went down town to find clothes. Three, going on four, days was long enough for the only things we had on our backs. We decided to eat first. In the restuarant there were several items of various prices. I chose a less expensive item. The most expensive would have cost about $20. When we went to buy clothes I got jeans, a shirt, T-Shirts and underpants. If I had known three pairs of underpants were going to cost $20. I would have gotten the expensive dinner.

Next we contacted the airline. They would be happy to re-issue the tickets if we could supply proof we had paid for them. They said someone in the US would have to send them the proof. I called my boss back in Texas. "Say boss, you want me back to teach those computer classes? Well, you have to call the Airline and get them to call the folks here to verify I have paid for those tickets" Boss deligated that task to Co-worker. Co-worker eventually spoke to the president of Airline. Promises were made.

Each day, after being grandly entertained by Brother and family, I would call the airline. I was told to come to the airport on the morning of our original reservations. First Wife and I arrived an extra hour or two early, to be sure all the paperwork was OK. We were met by a very pleasant woman, who had been handling our problem. She informed us she had not yet received the final confirmation but expected it momentarily. She then went off to check. She had gone down a nearby hallway.

Now, I don't know a single curse word in Spanish... well maybe one... But, as the lady was walking back toward us I could tell she was exercising her vocabulary of choice words. When she exited the hall, she was all smiles and apologies. The confirmation of payment for Madrid to New York had come. All Airline had sent was confirmation of reservation from New York to Texas. No confirmation of payment.

In response to her repeated apologies I said "Madam, I cannot swim from here to New York, but if you can get me that far, I can walk to Texas." She printed tickets to New York. In New York, Airline, after hearing my story, (and checking their computer) printed tickets to Texas.

No comments:

Post a Comment