On our way to England last May, Al and I went on a typical cruise ship excursion to Rouen. Our guide played hide-and-seek on a rushed tour of the cathedral, then we had an hour to ourselves before we had to get back on the bus. It was a perfect chance to let Al experience a French sidewalk café, so I sat him down and asked for a menu.

The café owner was polite and tried to be helpful, but he didn’t speak a word of English or Spanish. He wasn’t pretending. I was meek and apologetic, throwing in all the “Bonjour” and “Merci. Merci. Merci! Merci beaucoup” I could manage short of sounding like a madman. He didn’t come his half of the way and pull out his five words of English. He really runs a restaurant on a side street in a tourist town and hasn’t a driblet of another language.

Pointing at the menu and holding up fingers got us our lunch, and we sat and ate and watched the scene. Al smoked a cigarette afterwards, looking like someone in a Truffaut movie. Tourist checkbox checked.

Then I went to pay and realized I didn’t have enough Euros. I showed him my U.S. dollars and asked through sign language whether he could take them. I showed him my wallet full of nothing but greenbacks. I put down all my Euro bills, dumped out all my coins, then put down more than enough dollars to cover the rest of the bill. I looked at him helplessly. I wondered how I could ask him for directions to an ATM. I wondered if Al would be adequate collateral until I came back. I pictured the man’s arm reaching for the phone to summon the gendarmes.

But he just looked at me for minute, jutted his head forward, bulged his eyes, and threw up his hands. The universal gesture for “Whatcha gonna do?” I beaucouped many mercis and got us out of there.

Last year, I spent my European free time in Italy and Greece. This year, it was Spain. Next year, France. My Rouen experience prodded me to make an early start on French lessons.

My Spanish teacher is also fluent in French. When I asked to add French lessons to our schedule, she told me something I suspected and something I wish I’d known years ago. She confirmed that in Western Europe the people least likely to speak a second language are the French. If you want to spend time there, you need to parles.

Then she told me that French would be easier for me because I speak Spanish. She said the sentence structure is the same. So is a lot of the vocabulary, with small changes in spelling and pronunciation.


I’m 45. I started Spanish classes when I was 15. Why has no one mentioned this to me in the intervening thirty years? I knew they were both Romance languages, but had no idea they were so close. I’ve often wished I’d had a year or two of French. Why did no one tell me I had a mental springboard that could launch me over the first obstacles any time I wanted?

Let me be that messenger for you. If you speak some Spanish, look at a French newspaper. If you speak French, look at a Spanish one. Read casually, not getting hung up on the words you don’t recognize. Can you work out the gist of an article? Do the verbs and adjectives and adverbs fall in places that feel familiar? Do you spot familiar turns of phrase that have unfamiliar spellings?

Me too. I’m beginning at the very beginning, but it’s like taking a new path in a park I’ve visited many times. I’m seeing the same lake and hill and playground, but from different overlooks. If you’ve ever thought “Someday…”, look and see whether you’re not already further along than you knew. You could be making new friends and visiting new places faster than you imagined.

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