Our first stop in France was to a small town, Perpignan, just on the other side of the border. We chose this one because a bus stopped here and it looked a little bigger than the surrounding cities so we could rent a car and drive ourselves slowly up to Paris. We really wanted to experience the French countryside. Doesn’t that just sound beautiful? Though, we maybe should have realized the likelihood of these smaller cities speaking any English was slim. Just to note, I only just started trying to learn French in the month leading up to this trip and Zach started on the bus ride to Perpignan. So basically, we don’t really know any.
When we arrived in Perpignan, our first goal was to get SIM cards for our phones so we could have Google maps and find our hostel in Carcassonne. Zach had checked online beforehand and it said the bus station would have a phone store. We walked around a little bit, all excited with a skip in our step that we arrived in France. Except, everything was closed. The station was barren except for a few people that got off the bus with us. Why everything was closed at 11am on a Tuesday morning we could not tell you. But we still had hope! We saw an information desk and we sauntered up to the woman with such a confidence that she would speak English. I mean, we learned the specific phrase, “I speak a little French. Do you speak English?” What could possibly go wrong?
A man cut us off at the window right when we got to the front. Now normally, this is an infuriating behavior, but in this moment I was quite thankful because of what happened next. This man spoke even less French than we do and had very broken English, but it seemed like he was in a hurry to catch a bus and needed directions. He goes up to the woman at the desk and starts pointing and asking for the bus. The woman just keeps responding with “Bonjour” over and over. At first, I am very confused. She sounded like a broken record with the addition of each “bonjour” sounding more irritated than the last. I turn to Zach very confused and he says plainly, “She’s annoyed because he hasn’t said hi to her yet.” That’s when the “oh crap” alarm started dinging in my head. What if I am inadvertently rude? What if she just laughs in my face? All these questions swarm my head and then it’s our turn to talk to her. All the little French phrases I learned so proudly flew out of my head and with probably the most dumbstruck face I say, “Bonjour, parlez vous anglais?” No “please.” No “I speak a little French.” No nothing as I await her reaction.
She does not.
We stumble through quite possibly the best charades game ever asking her for a store that sells SIM cards. I did not expect that hours of playing that game with my sisters were actually just training sessions for visiting France for a couple weeks.
The woman points in two different directions, one inside this little grocery store, the other making this swooping sound going under and back up and across the way and to the right. We left confused, but decided to follow the swoop, not even really knowing if she understood what we were asking.
We wandered outside and inside for about ten minuets to no avail. At one point we were encouraged for a sign for a phone store, but no actual store. We tried getting on the WiFi at multiple places, but all the networks were locked.
Finally, we said we should go pick up the car, clear our minds a bit. Here’s the thing. We didn’t know how to get to our hostel that night. We knew it was about a two hour drive, northwest. Zach had downloaded maps on his phone that we could access while offline, which made me so appreciative. We didn’t have an address, but knew Carcassonne was a small city and hopefully we could find it if we went that direction. Maybe they would have a phone store there. If you can imagine, we were on edge. Our first time in France and we are feeling absolutely discouraged.
Thank goodness the woman at the car rental spoke very good English. (My nerves cleared and I was able to ask more politely than before!) She told us though we couldn’t get the car just yet unless we wanted to turn it in earlier in Paris, which we did not. She also said there was no phone store here. So, we had about an hour to kill.
Our next plan of action was to simply wander the town more and maybe we’ll happen upon a phone store, and we did about 15 minutes in! We saw a picture of a neon phone outside of the building and just about ran to it we were so excited. Except, it was more a used electronics store than a phone store. But there, in the corner above the cashier we saw the package for SIM cards. The store was essentially closet sized so the man at the counter witnesses all these mixed emotions on our faces – seeing the store, walking in, eyeballing the SIM cards, probably sweaty from hauling these giant backpacks around. We didn’t look great I can tell you that. But still, I put a smile on my face and spoke the little French I knew hoping he would speak English.
He did not.
He did speak a little bit of Spanish though! So in his broken Spanish with French words thrown in left and right, and my Spanish while trying to translate to Zach because he is asking me questions in English we got our SIM cards! Zach beams at me when we leave the store. I am still trying to process what the heck just happened. That was the longest conversation I had in a different language. It wasn’t the most fluid, but it happened.
In those moments I had to let my perfectionism fly out the window and just do it, which is an area where I really struggle. I don’t like doing things that I can’t do well. It makes me uncomfortable to be bad at something, especially if it’s bad at communicating with people. I really value communication, so when it was as rough as it was, it’s challenging for me to process. But that’s a big thing I’m trying to learn while traveling. Sometimes you just need to put yourself out there, throw perfect out the window. It’s better to try and fail than not try at all. And all those other quotes you hear along with it.
Unfortunately, the woman at the car rental place had left and a man who did not speak English was there. So we got a nice second round of speaking in another language, this one slightly better than the first with its ups and downs. But after all that, we made it safely to Carcassonne for the evening! In a later post I’ll talk about the driving experience in France, but I think this one is long enough for now. Au revoir!