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Jan 18, 2011 03:22 PM

Super excited- but don't read or speak French - Am I in trouble?

My husband and I will be in Paris for 5 nights in early Feb and this is our first trip to Paris in over 10 years. I've been going through these blogs and am so thankful for all of your wonderful recommendations!

We are hoping to experience the wonders of Spring, Frenchie, Le Duc, CAJ, chez Dumond, Le Gaigne and any other suggestions you have! -side note - I've noticed a lot of places closed on Monday's. any recommendations for a Monday night dinner spot?

So I wonder - will we be totally lost not speaking or reading French? Probably doing a lot of prix fixed menus. Do we just randomly guess, are their English menu's or do we just go with the flow... I'm just not sure what to expect.

Thank you!

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  1. You'll be fine speaking English, but I recommend that you telephone restaurants immediately to secure reservations.

    1. "will we be totally lost not speaking or reading French? Probably doing a lot of prix fixed menus. Do we just randomly guess, are their English menu's or do we just go with the flow... I'm just not sure what to expect."

      You will have no problem ordering from your target list of restaurants. Usually, your server will ask if you need help with the menu. Be honest. He is there to help you have a good experience and will find someone else to help him interpret for you if necessary. Enjoy!

      1. Completely agree with what the other posters have said. My husband and I have been in some interesting situations in countries where English is certainly not the first or second language and somehow always seem to manage and have fun doing it. We find, however, that prior to each trip learning key words and phrases really does help. We also take little phrasebooks to restaurants.

        37 Replies
        1. re: chefathome

          "learning key words and phrases really does help"

          if nothing else it's such a small gesture of respect and courtesy that reaps a lot of good will. practicing the French phonetics for 'pardon me, I don't speak French' 'I would like' 'if you please' and 'thank you' buys you SOOOO much patience and help. (I don't speak French either beyond a few phrases and menu words and have had a fine time there)

          I always had a smile on my face and sort of turned it into a game. as long as you make half an effort 90% of the time, people will try to be of help.

          1. re: hill food

            and ALWAYS start any conversation (w/server-gendarme-shopkeeper-Maître d') with 'Bonjour' , 'Bon Après-midi', or 'Bonsoir' ... otherwise your presence may not 'register'

              1. re: boredough

                and if you add Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle with the Bonjour/Bonsoir, that's an even further bit of politesse that will open doors to you.

                1. re: boredough

                  Yes, always start with bon jour and use monsieur or mademoiselles when it fits. People say the French are unfriendly (especially the Parisians) but I've always found the opposite; they just don't want to be treated like ... well, waiters. So smile, act like "it's so nice to be talking with you," and you should have a wonderful time and, like me, think the people are crazy who hate the French. On the other hand, although they're inconsistent about this, the French tend to look down on people speaking poor or broken French; my advise there would be to stick with English. Maybe try a French phrase here and there, with a questioning look on your face, to show them you would like to speak French if you could. (As to menus, in Paris you should be fine; otherwise bring a translation book or guide for food names.)

                  1. re: arverni

                    "the French tend to look down on people speaking poor or broken French; my advise there would be to stick with English"

                    I couldn't disagree more - I have found French people are normally really accommodating when foreigners try to speak their language, no matter how badly - in fact they are pleased when we try and will usually help out when we're stuck. And "sticking with English" won't help much if the people you are speaking to don't speak English.

                    Some people think that French people are being rude when, for example, a waiter responds in English to someone who has just tried to practice their French when ordering - I just see it as them easing the lines of communication, particularly when they need to make sure they are taking the right order...

                    1. re: Theresa

                      I agree with Theresa. (And: Our French is quite poor, and yet we get the strong impression -- and sometimes are told -- that our effort is appreciated.)

                      1. re: Theresa

                        In my experience, service is much better and friendlier when you at least attempt to speak French.

                        Be careful when using Mademoiselle. It's not a politically correct term for adult women in France these days, and is generally used for females under the age of 14. It would be considered impolite to refer to your adult female server as "Mademoiselle".

                        1. re: phoenikia

                          I think it is quite the opposite, 'Mademoiselle' is considered flattering and innocuous, it is "Madame" which requires more care and should be avoided with women visibly under 25 or 30.

                          I can't figure out what would be "politically incorrect" in using "Mademoiselle" in its rightful application. It is actually often heard. Even I sometimes get called "Mademoiselle" when shopping or dealing with anyone from public service, and the term is common enough not to make me feel unduly flattered or made fun of.

                          Also, 'political correctness' is a concept the French tend to be very suspicious of and try not to let it into their lives if they can avoid it.

                          1. re: Ptipois

                            That's interesting - I thought that they were moving away from using it at all for women over puberty. Just to keep it on food - when I go for lunch in our local bar, I am often called Mmselle as a friendly joke by the owners (I am in my 40s), but I had got the impression that it is used less and less as a way of addressing young women.

                            Does it depend perhaps on whereabouts you are in the country - are they more likely to address women as Mmselle up to the age of 25/30 in rural/more traditional areas? Are city women more likely to prefer Madam? I am thinking that can't be the case though, as most of my French experience is of rural Languedoc, and I believe you live in Paris ... so that theory is out of the window!

                            Certainly, in practice, I am more inclined to call a server in a restaurant Madam if she is over about 20 - so I seem to fall in the middle somewhere ...

                            1. re: Theresa

                              Calling "Madame" a young lady just over puberty would be considered a bit awkward and the girl probably would not be sure how to take it.
                              All in all, those language rules have changed little over the decades and there is no difference between town and country, Paris and regions.

                              The only big change I can think of is the "vous" instead of "tu" used with children over 8 or so, outside of a family context. That started in the late 70s I believe.

                              1. re: Ptipois

                                Deleted because a previous post already addressed my point.

                            2. re: Ptipois

                              And middle-aged male waiters often call older women "mademoiselle" to joke around...


                              1. re: Busk

                                Also hysterical when older women address their middle-aged waiters as "Garçon!".

                                I almost decked my friend when she tried to get our server's attention with "Garçon!" in Switzerland. What made the experience even more memorable is the fact we were visiting a German-speaking part of Switzerland.

                                wrt : the usage of Mademoiselle. By mentioning one should be careful with the usage of "Mademoiselle", I'm not encouraging the usage of "Madame". I rarely use either title. When in doubt, I leave it out.

                                1. re: phoenikia

                                  "Garçon" for a waiter has entirely disappeared from the surface of the Hexagon except for a few isolated pockets of old ladies who also still count in ancient francs (not the ones before the Euro, the ones before 1963). That is really on the move.

                                  Madame and Mademoiselle are really common as long as they're used the right way. I don't understand where the problem should be.

                                  1. re: Ptipois

                                    That is why the usage of "Garçon!" is hysterical in the 21st C! ;-)

                                    Is Hexagon the Parisian word for Lexicon?


                                      1. re: Busk


                                        France is often referred to as "L'Hexagone", due to its geographic shape. That would be the Hexagon Ptipois is talking about in her reply.

                                        1. re: phoenikia

                                          And very often you hear lobotomized journalists say on tv and radio: "… les quatre coins de l'Hexagone".

                                          1. re: Parigi

                                            lemme guess, given the context, 'quatre coins' means four corners?

                                      2. re: phoenikia

                                        "Garçon !" sounds really, really awkward now. The last time I saw it, it was the title of a Claude Sautet movie starring Yves Montand as, duh, a brasserie waiter. I don't even think the word was still in use then (late 1970s).

                                        "The Hexagon" is a nickname for France, which is more or less hexagonal in shape. It was created by journalist Robert Beauvais in 1970 in his book "L'Hexagonal tel qu'on le parle" which was a parody of late baby-boom era, technocratic overcomplicated jargon which since then hasn't shown any signs of receding in the press and media. Like calling old people "the third age" or blind people "non-seeing", etc.

                                        The book is now quite forgotten but the expression "L'Hexagone" is still rather popular.

                                        1. re: Ptipois

                                          Isn't it more that French kids have it brow beaten into them never to repeat the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph, or text, and so rather than repeating the same word twice, journalists gladly resort to cliché - my pet hate is the "cité phocéen".

                                          Mademoiselle is still alive and kicking, tant mieux.

                                          1. re: vielleanglaise

                                            "cité phocéen"
                                            And l'Archipel, just l'Archipel, for Japan. Duh.

                                            1. re: Parigi

                                              Vieilleanglaise: that's probably true. Repetitions are the absolute no-no in writing. But also, never underestimate the gallic rooster complex - a gregarious craving for originality. As a result simple things are made to sound more complicated than they are and everybody is original in the very same way.

                                              Parigi: and that's the soft version. In the other version you can have L'empire du Soleil-Levant, etc.

                                2. re: Ptipois

                                  I'm 25 and I wouldn't be wildly insulted if someone called me mademoiselle but it could potentially feel rather patronising. Depends on the context, but I am usually called madame. If I went, say, into a smart boutique and was called mademoiselle when I walked in, I'd feel that the staff were patronising me, for sure.

                                  1. re: chochotte

                                    You'd "feel", but it would not be the case. It is all your perception as a non-French person. There is absolutely nothing patronizing, albeit insulting, about being called "mademoiselle" when you're 25.

                                    1. re: Ptipois

                                      I am indeed not French, but have lived there a lot - cannot claim to know all the nuances of the language and culture by any means, but I do know many French women of my age who feel the same.
                                      "Mademoiselle in France is over, except for actresses. Madame is used for any woman." "A mon avis, on dit Madame pratiquement dans tous les cas, et on réserve Mademoiselle pour les très jeunes filles - ou les très vieilles filles, qui y tiennent souvent - ou pour les actrices de la Comédie Française." Just two examples from native French speakers over on the WordReference boards, and certainly not proof of correct or blanket usage - but at least proof that I'm not totally alone in my opinion, or that it's entirely due to my non-native-French-speaker status.

                                      So, I think I can only conclude that the issue is extremely confused! Especially so because in Quebecois French I am pretty sure that mademoiselle is definitely no longer widely used.

                                      1. re: chochotte

                                        What I said above is that being called "mademoiselle" when you're 25 is quite within range of acceptability, and whatever the individual perception is, seeing it as patronizing from the people who do it is a clear case of overinterpretation.

                                        What is mandatory on administrative documents (the law requires that no term related to the marital status should be used) is ruled by different laws in everyday conversation, in which Madame and Mademoiselle are no longer connected to marital status anyway.

                                        About the WordReference boards I will be brief: I wouldn't take the replies you got there as evidence. As a translator I have learned to be suspicious of them. It is true that Madame is now quite general (at least for women after 20) but it is absolutely not true that "Mademoiselle in France is over".

                                        And that "except for actresses" makes the source sound even more uncertain... Comédie-Française actresses are referred to as "Madame" when the term is actually used, for now only the names (for men and women) are mentioned. The Mademoiselle is an old use (17th-18th century) for when the actresses were only known by their family name (like Mlle Hus or Mlle Mars).

                                        1. re: Ptipois

                                          I appreciate your point about WR forums! - I agree. Anyway, don't want to derail this board further into (admittedly fascinating, to me) sociolinguistics. I think patronising was too strong a word on my part; I wouldn't really be offended very much but I would be slightly - hmm. I am simply not entirely happy with that usage; I have friends who find it far more offensive than me on political/feminist grounds, and there are equally many who have no problem being called mademoiselle if they look relatively young (and surely others who'd love to be called it more often!). It's complicated and there's no definitive answer. The actress thing's interesting because it parallels the use of the word 'actress' (now no longer used by many publications/media outlets) in English. But that's a discussion for another time and place!

                            3. re: arverni

                              "On the other hand, although they're inconsistent about this, the French tend to look down on people speaking poor or broken French; my advise there would be to stick with English. Maybe try a French phrase here and there, with a questioning look on your face"

                              I am having a questioning look on my face now and I am not trying to speak French.

                              1. re: Parigi

                                this is why after the salutation the first thing out of my mouth (in something like French) is an explanation that I don't speak French, before I start mangling their language.

                                and they're not un-friendly, just generally rather formal, there's a difference.

                                1. re: hill food

                                  That's very true - I think their initial formality can be misunderstood sometimes. I have found that once you have been in the same shop a few times (and after I have tried chatting away inanely and in broken French about how I am going to cook my piece of belly pork) that their formality starts to ease off, they love discussing the ingredients I have just bought and they are intrigued at my efforts to speak the language! I think they think I am a true eccentric English woman ...

                                  1. re: Theresa

                                    or even the first time, once at a chocolatier I was barely able explain that the chocolate was for my grandmother and after that was understood the clerk was VERY patient figuring out I meant no nuts or caramel. of course a few key words did help, grandmere, sans nouilles, mache (sp)

                                    or an another trip, my travel companion was sick as a dog and the hotel bar staff really warmed up after I ordered 'wellscotch' (essentially a keg of boilermakers for the uninitiated)

                              2. re: arverni

                                I'd actually have to agree from my experience on this one - but I would add "Canadian" to that!

                                I grew up speaking French, my family is French, I wouln't ever claim to be PERFECT, but my French is both a first language and educated and is extremely good. And the only people I can get to speak French to me in Paris are the lovely people at my office, who are incredibly grateful for someone from the head office who speaks thelanguage. The second just about everyone else hears the North American accent, they switch. Or attempt to switch, leaving me to decide whether to make out their broken English or force the issue.

                                Maybe they are excited to practice their English, but I wouldn't say there's any chance of a communication issue, just a flavour issue.

                              3. re: boredough

                                What boregough said.
                                Remember that sage advice and you will have a wonderful time. Paris is a great City, my French is awful, but I use the basics and am always treated very well.

                              4. re: hill food

                                Exactly - it shows you truly care enough to make an effort. You'll be surprised at how much on the menu you'll recognize, anyway, from recipes and such.

                              1. Absolutely not. Anglophone tourism is big business in Paris and most of the time, businesses are very much prepared for this kind of situation. Also, 'menu French' is a language all its own and I've found that even native speakers sometimes struggle to make out exactly what is being described - so do not be afraid to ask for explanations! If you don't have any knowledge of any Romance languages/Latin, and so really will struggle even to get basic ideas about what's on menus, you might want to invest in a little English-French dictionary specifically aimed at diners, which would prevent you having to ask repeatedly for word-for-word translation (it would at least enable you to identify the main meat/fish/veg in a dish and the ways in which they were cooked, to whittle things down before asking your waiter/waitress for more detailed info). Something like this?

                                But if you speak Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese etc. then you can probably make out enough to get by.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: chochotte

                                  Le Duc, don't go.
                                  From my review of a year and a half ago.

                                  "Went to Le Duc for dinner a few weeks ago. This is among the best fish restaurants in Paris? We were expecting the freshest fish, simply prepared. That’s what we were told Le Duc served and that’s what we wanted. Couldn't even get that.

                                  In a nutshell: mediocre menu which quite clearly rarely or ever changes even if the fish listed aren't available. A wine list that could charitably be described as mediocre. Have they never heard of Rhone Valley reds? Isn't there anything decent from Provence or The Languedoc to be put on a wine list... you bet there is. In whites, if you're going to concentrate on Burgundy at least have a decent selection (no off years, no long over the hill oxidized wines).

                                  The service was inept. Is it possible to get a bottle of water in under 20 minutes, even if the restaurant is only a quarter filled at 8:30? How many times does one have to ask for a bottle of water before it comes; two, three, four times? Is it possible for the sommelier (at least he pretended to be one) to pour the bottle of red wine into the empty wine glass that he set out for the red, rather than into the half filled glass of white wine? Is it possible for the sommelier to pour the wine into the glass rather than on the table cloth? The service was without any smile whatsoever; nothing, blank! Just going through the motions.

                                  The soupe de poisson looked like dirty water and tasted not much better. Once again, even with this dish, inept service; here's why. The waiter comes and laddles half the tureen into my bowl. Beside the bowl, he sets down the croutons (actually small tasteless pieces of bread) and something that looked like some form of rouille, but didn't resemble any that I'd ever had before. The tureen was then removed. After finishing the bowl, I didn't want any more soupe, but even if I had wanted it, no one was going to offer it because the tureen simply disappeared after ten minutes and the other half was never offered. First time that's ever happened.

                                  The turbotin was tasteless. The vegetables were a mass of brown rice and a puree of parsnips, neither having much flavor. The bread is a disgrace (the butter was good). The oysters were wonderful. Didn't stay for dessert. Four of us: four first courses (two of oysters) four second courses, two mediocre bottles of wine and two bottles of water. Check, close to 475 Euros.
                                  What a ripoff. Go at your own risk.

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                                  1. re: allende

                                    many better fish restaurants in Paris than Le Duc. Our fave is La Cagouille in the 14me.

                                    1. re: allende

                                      The butter was so good, we ordered more and a very classy Parisian lady wrapped it up and took it home. Best butter ever eaten, Bordier is weak next to it.