Our children Liv and Ollie laughed when we told them we were going to spend a month in France, hiking through rural villages. After traveling with us overseas they know how I generally get by with charades and google translate. Ol just uses simple Spanish in all situations, regardless of the country we are in. He thinks a Spanish “gracias” and “por favor” will get you through anything.
Before we left on our journey I practiced my French on my iPad and both Ollie and Liv tried to help me with my pronunciation as they have both studied French and lived with families in France. After hearing me butcher one of the world’s most beautiful languages, they finally gave up. They were convinced we were going to be helplessly lost and that the French would take no pity on the poor Americans!
We were as surprised as anyone to have absolutely no problem getting around on our French journey. We learned the basics like “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”. Within seconds of speaking with anyone it became apparent that we were not French, and after inquiring where we were from, it seemed that most French people wanted to practice their English with us.
So after a week and a half of being tourists in France, we set off on our hike on the Chemmin de St. Jaques, with no worries.
We quickly learned that the French were very helpful if we attempted to communicate in French. The people we met would go out of their way to help us with things like making reservations or helping with directions.
The only problems that have occurred for us is when we meet a few people who have no understanding of English or when no one is around to ask for help and we have to rely upon French signs. Such is the case along the trail when gites (French hostels) are advertised with a small placard; usually a picture, the phone number, and the distance to the accommodation.
We usually see these at the end of the day when we are tired and the temperature is quite warm and all we can think about is a shower and a bed. Unfortunately, we have found many of these gites, aren’t quite honest about the distance from the trail, or the distance from their sign to their front doors.
On one such occasion, we were tired and saw a sign advertising a lovely gite. The fact that it had cafe and bar is what sealed the deal. We called and made a reservation.
We knew that we had another hour to walk and started talking about the usual things, like what we would drink when we arrived. An hour passed and we didn’t see any more signs. Finally, after walking quite a bit longer we saw a big sign with the name of our gite on the side of a wall to a large home. We made it!
We walked through the iron gate, and up a stone pathway lined with flowers. The house was lovely, but there were toys strewn all over the yard. It wasn’t quite as neat and professional as what we have become accustomed to. It also seemed very quiet. Just as we stopped to look around a large dog, came bounding up to us and gave us a warm welcome of kisses.
We continued to the front door and knocked. There was no answer so we opened the door and looked around. It appeared that no one was home. We decided to just sit on the porch and play with the dog. It is quite typical that the gites don’t open until 4:00 or 5:00 as most owners have other jobs. We looked at the jacuzzi with lust and decided to wait.
After a while, Ol decided to go down and read the sign again, this time with Google Translate. It appears that the homeowners had simply allowed the sign to be placed on their wall. The actual gite was still ten minutes away! Apparently we had walked into someone’s home and hung out on their front porch!
We laughed and started walking down the road again. Our new four legged friend decided to join us. We couldn’t get him to stay at home as he wanted to follow us. So, on top of burglary, we were also dog thieves!
We continued walking down the hill, crossed the highway and saw another large sign attached to the side of a building advertising our gite. We didn’t want to make the same mistake again so we cautiously looked around. We didn’t see a bar or cafe so we were confused. We checked the sign on Google Translate and it assured us that this was in fact the gite.
We knocked on the door and it opened. We saw hiking boots and backpacks lining the wall, that was a good sign. We poked our head in and said “Bonjour!” and a man in speedo underwear and a towel, walked out of the bathroom.
Was this the owner? We tried to communicate but he didn’t speak English. He pointed outside and we saw a woman hanging clothes out to dry. Surely, he must be telling us that the woman is the owner. We thanked him and walked outside.
“Bonjour, we have reservations for tonight” I said approaching the woman.
“Bonjour” she said, and began saying something in French that I didn’t understand.
“Do you speak English?” I said.
“No” she replied and said something else in French.
This was going to be difficult as we had not encountered an innkeeper that didn’t speak even a little English.
“Can you show us to our room?” I asked, playing charades with my hands and acting like I wanted to sleep.
She pointed upstairs as she again said something I didn’t understand in French.
“She isn’t very helpful for an innkeeper” I thought to myself, brushing it off as a language barrier.
The dog followed us into the house and seemed very comfortable. The woman did not seem to mind that the dog was inside. There was a sign that indicated that pets were welcome.
Not wanting to be charged for having a pet in our room I indicated to the woman that the dog was not our dog. The woman grabbed the dog’s collar and began escorting the dog outside. Apparently she didn’t want a strange dog inside her house after all.
I then asked the woman if she could do our laundry after we checked in. Knowing that she didn’t understand English I decided to open our bags and hand her our dirty clothes.
The woman looked at me like I was insane and began to shake her head “no.” Oh well, again not very helpful but I understood that she did not do laundry for her guests. No big deal.
Ol sensed that something was not quite right and thought that maybe we were at the wrong place. He decided to walk up the hill to look for the bar and cafe. The dog followed him.
I undid my pack and sat at the picnic table. The woman joined me. I took out my phone and opened Google Translate. I told her how lovely her flowers were and how I had a garden at home. We began typing a conversation back and forth.
I took off my boots and asked if she had a medical kit, I showed her that I had a blister that needed popping. She went inside and came back with a first aid kit.
Ol, returned and said that this was the Gite but that the bar and restaurant were down the street. He said that he met the owner of the gite at the restaurant and she told him that our room is upstairs, first door on the left. He said that the dog stayed at the cafe.
“The owner is at the restaurant?” I asked “Well who is the woman that I have been talking to for the last half hour?”
I could only laugh when it dawned on me, the woman I had been talking to was not the owner, but a fellow hiker! I laughed as I scrolled through my texts, telling her how much I love her flowers and how nice it is to have the world come visit her.
I now understood why she looked at me as if I was crazy when I asked her if she would do my laundry!
That night at dinner at the Cafe restaraunt, a young French hiker spoke English and translated for us. Everyone was laughing when we explained how we thought they were the owners, but not very helpful. We laughed when they told us that they thought that the dog was ours.
Over the next few weeks, we saw our new friends many times. Each time they laugh at what they thought were the rude Americans who asked them to do their laundry.
So, maybe we should have worked on our French a little more, before our travels. However, the moral of the story is that we have found that people are very helpful and tolerant even if they don’t speak the same language as long as you don’t ask them to do your laundry.