If you want to listen to Brad Paisley sing about leaving his Southern Comfort Zone, click on the link below. You are in for a treat... beautiful scenery. And a great message. Being a Southern girl, I know everyone he references, from Billy Graham to Martha White. I was 20 years old before I boarded my first airplane and that was to head to France for the first time! Talk about leaving my comfort zone. Mon dieu. When I look back on it, I wonder how I ever worked up the nerve to do it in the first place. But you can believe that I am very proud of myself for taking that first giant step towards my future.
I talk to my students constantly about taking chances and getting out of their comfort zones. That's the way to grow and develop a sense of self and independence. Teaching a second language to middle schoolers gives me the chance to spread the gospel. Many of my students have traveled extensively already-- with their parents. But our spring break trip to France is a whole other kettle of fish. I give them a certain amount of independence that they have basically been earning since they set foot in my classroom two or three years ago. For some of them, it is two weeks of firsts--the first time they've been responsible for setting an alarm and waking themselves up. The first time they've been totally in charge of what they have for lunch. The first time they've budgeted their money and bought souvenirs for their family and friends all on their own. The first time they've been immersed in a language other than English. The first time taking public transportation and/or a train. The first time they are completely in charge of their own belongings. I watch them grow up.
Since the trip is only two months away, we have started talking about what to expect. I get so tired of hearing or reading about rude Parisians. How about rude travelers? Or maybe not even rude, just not aware of how to read the French. Or treat them. Or what to expect. Here is a crash course--
- Always greet the sales clerk, waiter, shop owner, front desk person, etc. with Bonjour/Bonsoir, madame/monsieur/mademoiselle. My students know how to say that. We practice it every day. It isn't hard to learn. It's basic politesse. Comment allez-vous? (How are you?) also works wonders.
- Most everyone in the tourist business speaks English and they love to practice on Americans. I strongly encourage my students to speak French, of course, and not feel intimidated if the waiter speaks English to them. This happens to me, too. I do not look French. The best I can do is Canadian. But I speak French with them and they seem to appreciate it. (And if they ask to have their photo taken with you, indulge them if you wish!)
- Speaking English loudly will not help a French person who doesn't speak English magically understand you. Americans tend to be loud enough as it is.
- Use vous with adults, not tu. The French have two ways to say you-- vous is polite and plural. It is used with adults you call by Mr. or Mrs. Tu is reserved for family and friends.
- Do not assume that French people are staring at you and talking about you. This one is difficult for middle schoolers since they still think that the world revolves around them. Yes, they are looking at you. This is culture of cafe-sitters and watch-the-world-go-byers. It's a national past time. And trust me, I spend my fair share of time looking at how Frenchies dress and carry themselves. It's fascinating.
- On subways and trains, do not assume that just because you are speaking English in a French-speaking country that no one will understand your English. You could really get into big trouble that way. If you don't believe me, get a copy of David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day and read the chapter entitled Picka Pocketoni. This book is hi-lar-i-ous. I mean laugh-out-loud funny. I read this chapter out loud to my students before we leave. As a matter of fact, I recommend you get a copy of the book and read the whole thing regardless of whether you are going to France or not.
- If you like washcloths, take one with you. Most French hotels don't supply them.
- Sometimes you have to use your room key to turn the lights on.
- In small boutique hotels you are expected to leave your key at the front desk when you go out. Please, please, please don't lock it in your room. (That costs my students a 5 euro tip to the person who has to go up all those stairs and let them in.)
- It can be difficult to find a public restroom. And they can be totally different from what you are used to. Always have tissues in your pocket.
- In supermarkets, you are expected to bag your own stuff. And you will probably be charged a few centimes for the plastic bag. They really like for shoppers to bring their own re-usable bags.
- There are no free refills of coffee, soda or mineral water. A pitcher of tap water, un carafe d'eau, is free and will be refilled upon request. Iced tea doesn't really exist except in a Lipton can.
- Most Parisians are just going about their every day life, getting home to their families, eating lunch, going to work, shopping for basic necessities, running marathons, etc. We are invading their territory. They just happen to live in the most beautiful city in the world.
- Slow down and look at the architecture. Window shop. They call it faire du lèche-vitrine. Literally, window-licking.
- Try new foods. Don't say something is weird. Only after you've tasted snails can you tell me that you don't care for them. And don't comment on other people's food choices.
Bon appétit to new adventures and leaving your comfort zone from time to time!