France, Language Mistakes, Paris, Travel, Vacation

Foreign Language Phone Mix-up

Have you had confusing moments in a foreign language that still make you laugh years later? I can tell you about one of mine.

It was my very first trip to France and the year was 1989. I had studied French for four years in high school and I was a college student at that point. I tried to keep up my French as best I could at the time, sans internet or much access to French magazines, radio, etc. I kept my old school books and would actually bring them to a cafe and study them. I had no French friends or acquaintances but I figured that I spent so much time studying it in school that it would be a shame to waste it. Plus, I like language in general. Studying for that long in school does not mean that one is by any means fluent – far from it. We had no practice having conversations so my ability to listen and understand was not strong.

Gwyneth at the Louvre in 1989 (My hair was dyed brunette from its natural blonde). The pyramid by I.M. Pei had just been completed the year before.

Fast forward to being 23 years old. My friend Michelle and I decided to take a big trip to Europe for nearly three months. We first spent time in England with my aunt and uncle, visiting cousins and traveling around on our own. In the middle of that trip was France.

Michelle spoke no language other than English so it was up to me to be the leader on that. Since this was the time before the internet existed, we relied on tourist offices or Michelle’s guidebook to show us possible places to stay. In order to make phone calls, we used the call center at the post office. We found a place to stay in Paris and I was the one to make that dreaded phone call for a room reservation, making my best efforts with my high school French.

1989 Le Palais Royal

I called the chambre d’hôte (bed and breakfast) and a woman answered. I told her in my rehearsed French that we needed a room for two. I thought she asked us how long it might take for us to get there. I tried to compute in my mind the distance and difficulty to find it and told her, “Two hours.” She hung up on me. I was shocked and tried again. The same thing happened. I found a nice young Frenchman to help me and when he called, she told him that there were no rooms available. Years later it only occurred to me that she had been asking how long we would be staying! I can only imagine what she thought when I told her, “Two hours.” She must have thought the Frenchman was my “companion”.

After that point, we did visit the tourist office and we ended up staying in a great room in the 8th arrondissement.

I made an effort and although I wasn’t successful in booking a room over the phone in a foreign language, it made for an unforgettable story.