Guest Traveler: Max Griffin*
I arrived via train from Ramstein AFB in Germany where I had been teaching a course in statistics. I felt a bit intimidated since I speak no French. So worried was I, that I had memorized the phrase "I have a reservation" for use when I checked in at my hotel. The desk clerk responded at once in English without batting an eye. In fact, I found everyone I met in France to be delightful and more than happy to speak in English -- perhaps because I at least made the effort to initially attempt to communicate in French using a phrase book.
Now to my story. I checked in to my hotel in the early afternoon and was most eager to begin sight-seeing. It was a short walk -- perhaps a mile -- from my hotel to the Louvre. I memorized the route on my map and found my way with no problem at all. I even passed by the residence of Blaise Pascal, the famous 18th century mathematician.
As I walked along the Seine, enjoying the sights of this marvelous city, I happened to pass a Metro stop. I paused for a cafe au lait and people watched for a bit; I found it amazing that I could spot nationalities by their walk. In fact, the cowboy swagger of Americans was the most distinctive.
Finishing my coffee, I strolled on toward the Louvre, now feeling somewhat conspicuous with my typical American gait. About two blocks from the Louvre entrance, I heard a voice behind me, in a most distinctive Bronx accent, "Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!"
I turned and saw two ladies staring right at me, holding guidebooks in one hand. I pointed to myself and raised my eyebrows and their faces broke into ingratiating smiles. "Do you speak English, sir?"
"Why, yes, I do," I responded, giving them my best Iowa farm boy smile.
I saw relief wash across their faces. "Oh, thank heavens," one exclaimed. "Can you tell us where to find the Metro?" She spoke with a precise and loud intonation, as if volume would improve my comprehension.
Having just seen the Metro stop, I replied, "It's just two blocks down this street." I pointed the way and continued, "You can't miss it."
"Mercy, Mercy!" one exclaimed.
I beamed and nodded to them. "Glad to be of service, madam," said I. It began to dawn on me that these two ladies thought I was a native of this fair city and "mercy" was really "merci." I guessed that my American gait made me seem somehow more approachable than those with the German shuffle or the French prance.
"You speak such good English," exclaimed the lady with the most pronounced Bronx accent. I could barely understand her. "How did you ever learn to speak it so good?"
I beamed at her. "I went to school in Iowa, madam."
She looked blank for a moment, no doubt thinking Iowa was that place where they raise all those potatoes. "Ah, you must have been an exchange student! Well, thank you very much, mon-sewer." The two toddled off to the Metro and I proceeded to the Louvre, having done my good deed for the day.
No doubt the two returned to New York to regale their friends with a tale of the nice French exchange student they met in Paris who learned such good English in Iowa while eating potatoes. At least, I hope so.
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