Whatever Happened to the Rude French?

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris is not really in Paris. In fact, it’s not really in France at all. Like the U.S. Embassy, Disneyland Paris is a little piece of America in the centre of Europe (Val d’Europe to be precise). And it is populated by a kind of Euromerican, typical American suburban families, except that they hail from the Netherlands, or Germany or Italy or England.

And the most frustrating thing about Disneyland Paris is that it’s almost impossible to speak French there. Unless that is, you speak very fast and very fluently, or unless someone is trying to rip you off. The worst people there are the smug service staff who work at hotel receptions, McDonald’s counters and other places never frequented by le vrai français. These are people who can speak 5 different languages with varying degrees of fluency and they take delight in correcting your broken French and then proceeding to talk down to you in English. And if you’ve ever been talked down to by someone serving you French fries at McDonalds you’ll know it’s not a fantastic feeling.

In fact, if you wish to maintain your dignity with these smug gits the best thing to do is to begin in English from the get go – without so much as a “parlez-vous anglais?” or even a “do you speak English?” – and simply expect them to know what you’re talking about. But, having some small proficiency in French I can never bring myself to take this philistine route. So I begin in French and feel under intense pressure not to give myself away as a native English speaker – even if this means nodding in agreement and replying “oui, d’accord” when in fact I have no idea what the other person has just said to me. Because just a single “pardon?” will straight-away give me away – upon hearing this word, the smug-git-member-of-staff will immediately narrow his or her eyes at me and re-evaluate his or her initial impression:

« Hmm, ceci n’est pas un vrai français – il est un anglais, en déguisement d’un français – ceci est un imposteur ! »

And so inevitably the smug git’s next response will be “Ingleesh? Yass?” and he or she will say so with a decidedly superior tone.

At times I wish I could wear a shirt or carry a sign that read:

« Je suis un idiot. Parlez-moi lentement – pas en anglais ! »

I would actually be grateful if people would speak to me slowly like an idiot and not immediately switch to English for my benefit. Because the thing is I can speak French, having been learning on-and-off for the better part of five years I have by now a decent working vocabulary, I just find it difficult to hear the words when native French speakers speak so fast. If only French people came with subtitles below them that would be the ideal solution – unfortunately this isn't the case.

The last thing is, often-times, the smug-git-member-of-staff’s English won’t be near as much cause for feeling superior as he or she might think it is. And this sometimes causes problems, as I remember upon seeing a member of staff yelling “French fries, you want French fries” at a poor customer once, when from my position back in the queue I could see that wasn’t what she wanted at all.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Does this monument not posses a certain...
Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned rude Frenchman of the type you are still likely to find in an SNCF office when your ticket has been cancelled? You know, the type who will suddenly turn cold and unhelpful even after the meekest and most humble of “parlez-vous anglais?”. Or who will pretend not to know English out of spite if he or she doesn’t like your attitude. Whatever happened to that famous French arrogance which made the country great. Because, whilst these service assistants can be smug and pretentious and even sometimes snobbish and cliqueish it takes real arrogance to know how to speak English perfectly and yet not do so just because you'd rather speak French. And a whole sort of "je ne sais quoi" or "savoir vivre" or "jeu d'esprit" accompanies that kind of arrogance.

It's in fact not altogether unlike the arrogance of those writers who refuse to translate quotations from foreign languages!


JJ said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Since I reside in Florida, there is little reason for me to visit Disneyland Paris. Thus, I decided to take my vacation in Vanuatu, where I could practice my Bislama, which is mostly English anyway. But lo and behold, I discovered the French had to filter in some three dozen or so words just to be condescending toward tourists. I cancelled my reservations and booked my holiday in Louisiana.

Juniper said...

Our most memorable annoying foreigner was the member of staff in a German bar who steadfastly refused to understand "Drei bier, bitte", although beer is the same word in every language I know (not many, admittedly).