08/20/2012 07:04 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Learning To Speak French In Paris

Having lived in New York just prior to this, I was used to the "city lifestyle" and felt ready to live in Paris on a practical level. Even with a language barrier, I was confident that I would be able to take cabs, use the subway and exercise a pedestrian style just short of suicidal in a cool and collected manner. What I was not ready for was the fact that Paris was going to kick New York's ass on so many basic municipal levels.

The subways alone are enough to shame any American. Many stops include complimentary suicide-barriers along the tracks, a feature which single-handedly displays the how much more Parisians value their lives (I would too If I had those adorable brightly colored seats to sit in at every station!).



In general Paris is much cleaner than New York and also, as is the case with the design of most European cities, everything is just cuter.

"Aw, look, a trash can!" you might find yourself saying, or, as they call it, a "poubelle." Duh! Cuter.

If you had spent a lot of time playing with a Paris-themed Playmobile set growing up, you would not be disappointed when you arrived in real-Paris -- except that the people are less "joint-y" and their hair's not as perfectly shaped. Unfortunately being able to appreciate quality design and effective city-maintenance programs does nothing to improve your French.

I am officially on day five of intensive French classes, and I'd like to think I was at a level that would allow me to comfortably frequent authentic Parisian cafes and restaurants alone, confident that I would be able to communicate competently with the waiter and walk out with an inflated belly and ego.

As it stands, I still find myself gravitating towards places like the one I'm in today -- aptly called "Bagels and Brownies" (now you're speaking' my language!). The sandwiches are good here but also overpriced, a fact which only heightens my comfort level as a New Yorker. I'd like to think that maybe in a week or two I'll be confident hitting up Chez Louis, but for now I'm sticking to places who's names are 1) synonymous with the food that they serve and 2) preferably in English. (I walked passed an "Ari's Bagels" yesterday, which also looked promising...)

Over the past week I've come to terms with the ugly truth that speaking a language is one thing in a classroom and another thing entirely out on the street (or as I like to call it "the lion's den"). As soon as my foot touches the pavement, a bizarre chemical reaction takes place wherein I instantly forget everything I just learned in my four-hour class, as well as my name, birth date, telephone number and favorite Beatle.

In the subway this morning a nice looking young man asked me what time it was (perhaps one of the most basic and comprehensible questions you could be asked, especially when combined with tell tale wrist-pointing gesture, which he did), and yet my response was not to confidently say "Il est neuf heures" but instead to stare back at him in silent wide-eyed shock, as if he had just asked for my first born child. I maintained this reaction for a moment before realizing that, contrary to what I was feeling, time had not stopped, and he was still standing there waiting for an answer/sign that I was still breathing.

Knowing that words would be futile at this point, like a drowning victim hurling one final rope out towards a life boat, I frantically threw my watch in front of his face like a news headline. He nodded, smiling with a mix of confusion and pity and walked away. A few minutes later I looked down to see that my watch had actually stopped and was an hour off. (The glass-half-full individual would point out that my time-standing-still sensation had in fact been right on the mark.)

For whatever reason there seem to be a lot of nuns in and around the Alliance where I'm taking classes, and seeing them walking through the streets I started thinking that maybe I myself should start wearing a "nun-suit" (technical term) so that people won't try to talk to me on the street. That's a thing, right? That people don't talk to nuns? Well either way, at least I wouldn't have to worry about guys hitting on me in French (a huge problem I imagine I'm going to start having any second).

As I type these words, I am sitting next to the (French) owner of Bagels and Brownies who is conducting a series of job interviews for a cashier position here (or at least, from what I could understand it's a cashier position. It's also possible they said "hitman"). The nervous/eager-to-please manner of the each different bushy-tailed 20-something that comes in strikes me as both heartbreaking and also ridiculous within the larger scheme of things. When witnessing one interview after another you realize that they're each just a blip in a long line of faces all offering the same cookie and brownie selling abilities, and really all they have to do to come across well is to not be nervous (also the woman's obviously going to hire that first girl who was perfect and is just talking to the rest of them as a formality).

This unnecessarily awkwardness also strikes me as reminiscent of the dynamic between me and every single French person I come into contact with (and let me just say, there are literally thousands of them). But with the new perspective Bagels and Brownies has provided me, I now realize that I am but one fleeting annoyance in the long day of each of these French people, a single drop in the vast ocean of "eStupeeed Americans" that shows no signs of drying up.

And so I've decided that from this day forth I will stop trying so hard to round my guttural Rs and just use the words I know, speaking clearly and "avec confidence" (thats one of those freebie words that's great cause its just the English word said with a French accent). Perhaps in following this method the only thing that will end up really being pronounced is my American accent, but at least I'll be keepin it real. Besides, its not like I'm gonna fool them into thinking I'm "one of them." That jig is up the moment I open my mouth/map/American flag that I carry around with me at all times.

See more photos/videos of Elizabeth's Parisian experience at

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