How a nightmare weekend in a city that didn’t want us there showed me what it’s like to struggle with a language barrier
My girlfriend, Madden, got her phone stolen out of her pocket in the Notre Dame subway station, while I was sitting in Gatwick airport waiting to fly to meet her for a weekend in Paris together. Later that night I flew from Gatwick to Charles de Gaulle, made it through passport check only having to say “bonjour” and “merci.” (I didn’t know yet to say “bon soir.”) I made my way to the train station while trying as hard as I could not to look scared of pickpockets. With a $13 train ticket in hand, I swiped into the turnstile, found the right platform to get to the Airbnb Madden was staying in, just to find out the trains had just stopped running. Great. Swiped back out and Uber’d to the place. $45.
I arrived at about 1:30am and gorged on an enormous caprese salad and French bread with Madden and her sister. Ah, reunited. She’s a great stress reliever 😉
We packed our $*!t into too few bags, groggy as hell, and headed out into the cold of a beautiful new city. Lots of people carrying baguettes.
Ok, so we had an hour to kill and a $*!t ton of bags to wrangle before we could check in to our new Airbnb. “Let’s sit in that park, it looks pretty.” We saw some nice fat pigeons and parents teaching their kids how to chase them. Cute.
At 2, we checked in and met our host Keita. We dropped our bags, settled down for a bit and started formulating our game plan to get her phone situation settled. Using Find my iPhone, we put a stolen warning on it and found it’s last seen location. It was near a shopping mall outside the city in Ivry Sur-Seine, so we figured whoever stole it high-tailed it there to try and sell it.
-Quick sidebar to explain how it got stolen: She was riding an escalator, wrangling her bags and briefly put her phone in her coat pocket. Just after, a guy in front of her got up in her face and started talking to her in French. She was confused and thrown off balance, and so his partner was free to reach in, unplug her headphones and snatch the phone. The weird thing is how personal it felt to her. Steal anything else and the first reaction would probably be just anger, but steal someone’s phone and you steal a lot more than the money it’s worth. While the thief doesn’t necessarily want it for this, when they take someone’s phone, they take personal things like pictures and music. There’s something very violating to know that some stranger has your library of EVERYTHING personal. What is it you have on there? What comes to mind when you think about a stranger scrolling through your files? Weird how all of a sudden, the money isn’t the biggest concern, huh?
After a quick meal, we were refuelled enough to shove down our discouragement a little bit. We endeavoured to find the police station nearest to where her phone was taken so we could file a report. It appeared to be in the 3rd arrondissement, or district, so we set out. We got there at about 7:40, and in broken French we asked for English, and in broken English the policewoman said not really, so Madden tried to explain that her phone had been stolen using a combination of pantomiming and rephrasing until she understood and let us inside. Everyone was friendly and made small talk in English to try and calm us down while we filled out the police report. They told us that we didn’t have to do anything else now and that it was in their hands. It was reassuring to know that someone at least understood our predicament.
The phone store had closed at 8, so we couldn’t go there that night. We decided to just relax the evening away. We searched for a bakery to try and experience some French cuisine, and luckily were walking distance from a creperie. So we shuffled over in the light rain, hand in hand, discouraged again but happy to have each other. The one thing that makes any situation instantly better is her. A hug, holding hands or just looking into her eyes I can feel the love that lowers my blood pressure and gives me a new resolve.
That night we got back to the Airbnb, ate our traditional late night beans and corn (we’d copped a can of each from a grocery store on the way back,) steamed away the stress with a long shower, and gave each other massages. It was the simplest part of the weekend, and probably the most fun.
We got up early to go to the phone store. We thought the best game plan would be to show them the IMEI number and ask if they’d recently bought a used phone with that number. Ivry Sur-Seine was a short ride outside the city proper, and when we walked out from the metro station we saw the giant Boulanger sign and felt like Frodo and Sam seeing Mount Doom up close for the first time. Apparently, the entire country of France closes on Sundays, however, so we’d come all that way for nothing. We joked that at least Mount Doom was open 27/4, and decided to go investigate the shopping centre anyway. At least it would get us out of the cold rain for a bit.
We tried to find the nearest coffee shop that was open, and it ironically turned out to be a Starbucks embedded in a movie theatre. The place was a kid’s paradise, complete with arcade and pizza. She called her mom and stepdad again to reformulate the plan while I bought us pastry.
“Ok,” she said. “They didn’t have much to say. Just get a cheap phone for now. Something to get me through my stay in France.” So, we needed to find an open phone store on Sunday, and best we could see there was only one in the city, and it closed at 7. We knew with our luck, we didn’t have time to waste, so we walked back to the metro and headed into Orange, the new phone store. The final act of our dramatic comedy was beginning, I could feel it in my bones.
We got to the phone store at about 5, and after about 30 minutes of me nerding out over the phones and explaining pros and cons to her, we decided on an Orange branded Android phone and went to put our names on the list for assistance. We finally got called and started explaining that we wanted that one, please, and as soon as he started the process, were asked for one of our passports. Crap. OF COURSE we don’t have our passports! Gotta go back to the Airbnb, 20 minutes away.
Afraid that we would take too long navigating the subway, we panic Uber’d, grabbed my passport, and sprinted back to wait for our Uber back. We had an oddly serene 5-minute wait, and for a second forgot about the time crunch we were on. Paris, for all its stressors, is a beautiful city and looking back, that stands out more than the frustration we felt in the moment. ~$25 round trip.
At 5 minutes till closing, we hastily thanked the driver and sprinted down the street towards the store. Luckily the guy who had helped us the first time recognized us and had the paperwork all ready for us. Things went smoothly and she got her phone. The ring fell into Mount Doom and the credits were about to roll on the whole bad movie.
The rest of the night, we weren’t disoriented, hapless tourists. We were cosmopolitan travellers. We were adults. We got back to the Airbnb and had a great time setting up the new phone and just enjoying each other. It felt like 20 minutes had passed and all of a sudden it was almost 2. Her train back was at 8:30 am, and my flight at 11, so we curled up into each other, satisfied with the day’s progress and proud of our teamwork, and fell asleep. A few hours of bliss was interrupted by our alarms and the weekend was over. We were gonna have to say another goodbye soon. We can’t live together right now, and so these short days and nights we can steal from school and work are what we subsist on.
After a gruelling morning of mishaps, confusion and a rushed goodbye, I made it back to NCH and Madden made it back to her dorm. With about an hour before class started, I made myself some delicious instant coffee and settled into JCR to get my homework done. I walked up to a room full of classmates excitedly asking me “How was the weekend? DId you have an amazing time? Tell us EVERYTHING!” So here you all go, this is the story. Pour vou.
Total cost of the trip, roughly: $200. About $125 of that was from Ubers alone.
So, did I learn anything, having had such a difficult time navigating a foreign country? Over the course of the weekend, I had one of those “check your privilege” moments. Going outside of our English speaking comfort zones, I thought: “$*!t. If the French are this rude to us when we ask if they speak English, how tough must it be for non-English speakers to function in America?” I always try to give help whenever people ask me for it in America, but I know it’s an inherently unfriendly place, especially towards foreigners. It’s especially true now, with our nation so divided politically. I can’t imagine moving to America or even visiting, hoping to find that elusive “American Dream” only to be met with unfriendly xenophobes holding up metaphorical signs saying “LEARN ENGLISH OR GO BACK. ACTUALLY, JUST GO BACK”
All that wasn’t new to my mind, but having experienced a language barrier for the first time gave me a small fraction of a taste of the frustration and fear that immigrants and travellers must feel. I have a new sense in my mind now that every person who resorts to asking a stranger for help, especially if they don’t speak English, is having at least as hard a time as I did with my girlfriend in Paris that one weekend. And so the last thing I wanna do is make their day any worse.
Be that all as it may, I’m not particularly keen to go back anytime soon haha.