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The French Sneer

Posted by Christopher Wink on Nov 6, 2008 in Commentary |

A sign on a the window front of a cafe in Paris, France.

The Paris Sneer is it there. Oh it is.

Sean likes to take photos, particularly of signs and images that remind him of his own name.

So, while we were strolling down a French street, ambling towards the Eiffel Tower, Sean wanted to grab the above photo: a Paris cafe promoting its English. That’s where the trouble began.

The shop owner came out bar, gesturing and I heard: “Avez-vous pris une photo?”  Did you take a photo?

I stammered and didn’t much know what to say in French, so I said “Il ne parle pas en francais.” He doesn’t speak French - which seems silly, but prompted her to scold us in gesture and say mutter something, with I think some English.

We were both hungry, and I think Sean was feeling guilty, so went into the shop, though any smart traveler will tell you to AVOID RESTAURANTS THAT ADVERTISE SPEAKING ENGLISH.

We got burnt, forgettable sandwiches and expensive Coca Colas but something fun happened.

Though I understood her first question readily and offered - albeit limply - a French phrase in response, she assumed an American - because of course she asked our nationality - couldn’t understand the language.

So, I really wonder what she would think about my understanding that she told at least three new customers the story of our taking a photo of her store without asking.

Yes, the French sneer is there. Of course, as is famously said, that sneer is decidedly Parisian. We didn’t find it in Lyon - for Sean’s brother I ordered eau du robinet, tap water, and didn’t receive any condescension (”Je voudrais une carafe d’eau pour une personne) - and I certainly didn’t find it in Brussels, my first chance to speak French since high school.

So, learn a little bit of the French language. I have always heard you’ll get the sneer even worse in Paris if you don’t use any of the language, which, I suppose, could be understood.

Just like any stereotype, there are plenty of exceptions, but noses were turned upwards from time to time for sure.

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