I had been in France for all of 5 days. The language sounded like a series of snarls and grunts. A lot like the Cajun I had become familiar with while working on the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Paris had left a bad taste in my mouth; I was an American who didn’t speak the language and nobody really wanted to help. I kept my mouth shut most of the time. This was the first week of a six-week backpacking trip throughout Europe and I was feeling slightly overwhelmed. I had been in Normandy, the northern part of France for a day now and had found the attitude towards Americans to be much different. Obviously, these people were not Parisians. The small(ish) town of Caen receives a lot of money from tourism, so naturally the people like Americans, or, at least their fat wallets.
I had booked a tour of the D-Day landing beaches at the Caen War Memorial Museum and decided to walk over early and find some breakfast. Using Google Maps, I found a breakfast place and walked in. Nobody was there. It gave me one of those horror movie vibes, so I stepped out to read the sign. The hours posted said it was open, so I had a seat. A waitress appeared from the back and started speaking in rapid-fire French which slowed down to an awkward silence when my facial expression did not change. I missed the punchline to her joke, apparently. I asked if she spoke English, which I received the very familiar “No” and was handed a menu and asked if I would like coffee. (Tip for travelers: learn the words for coffee and water!) I said “oui” and tried to leverage my technology to translate the menu. Google translate is a wonderful app, but is frustrating sometimes when you have no internet connection. I had previously used it to translate the owners manual for the radiator in my AirBnB when I woke up freezing in the night.
The word “galettes” doesn’t translate to anything in English, but jambon does, so I went with that and got a wonderful surprise. Just after I had ordered, a young woman and her children entered and she corralled them into their chairs. She yelled to the waitress for waters for the children and then looked at me. I spilled and said Bon Jour. She smiled and asked in near perfect English where I was visiting from. A wave of relief noticeably rushed over my body and I replied that I was from Virginia. I asked her to translate what I had just ordered and she explained that a galette was a buckwheat crepe that was savory and not sweet. Mike-1 French-999. I was on the upswing! The woman offer to order me an American style coffee in exchange for chatting with her children in English, like and American would with their children. I enthusiastically accepted because sometimes even crappy American coffee is good, especially when you are starting to feel homesick. We chatted about America and France and what our homes are like and what American kids do for fun, to which I lied about reading books, playing outside with their friends and made no mention of iPads, Facebook, or Netflix. My new friend was thankful for that.
We finished up our meals and I paid my check and headed off to my tour, thankful for the kindness of strangers and having the opportunity to have a conversation that lasted more than two sentences with someone for the first time in a week. My lesson learned is that the further you travel from a major city, the fewer the number of people that speak foreign languages, but the nicer they are. Taking some French lessons might have saved me some frustration.
Mike Leydet is an avid traveler and woodworking hobbyist home-based in sunny Virginia Beach, VA. He has traveled on miles and points to over 20 countries and across the United States. He has two cats who both dislike travel, but allow him several weeks a year to be out and about exploring the world without too much grief when he returns. You can follow his adventures on Facebook: Explore the World With Mike