It's Sunday evening and I'm currently sat on the 6:47pm train from Bordeaux to Agen.
But my god what a stress it has been getting this far...
Everything was going fine until my flight was delayed. I almost considered the costly cab ride from Bordeaux airport to the station (almost €60 on a Sunday!) but then I realised that even that wouldn't get me to my train on time. So I jumped on the packed bus at last minute, with an awkwardly large suitcase in tow, deciding to buy a later train ticket at the station. With all the stress of delayed planes and overpriced taxis I think I had forgotten that I had landed in France and so proceeded to ask for a ticket in English: "ticket to the station please." At that the driver shrugged his shoulders and shook his head: "pardon?" Realising my mistake and attempting to apologise/make sense I tried to remember the basics of year 8 French: "un billet...to...Bordeaux...train station..." It was a terribly embarrassing attempt at French and what made it worse was that the whole bus seemed to be listening in on my almost nonsensical ramblings (and I'm sure I later thanked him with a "danke shon"). Thankfully an older lady (who I later learned is a tour guide in Bordeaux) came to my rescue and translated for me. I felt so helpless. And very far from the 'independent traveller' I claim to be.
Language came up in conversation with the lady and she joked that "you English are so lazy with languages." I couldn't agree more and felt so guilty for something that I am going to call 'English Arrogance': the knowledge that the English language has become a worldwide dialect and therefore allows us to rely on others to bridge gaps in communication. Whilst I always try to learn the basics wherever I go- even if just to say "thank you" to the waiter- I still couldn't shake the feeling that I was lazy and lacking in a basic skill.
Are we to blame though? When hardly any focus or importance is given to languages in our education system? In my school taking a language A-level was only really encouraged if you hoped to pursue a career in languages (whatever that means!) And unfortunately we've fallen so far behind the rest of Europe, that when I do try to practice, say my German, the locals and their 5-year old son will use English to save time because they will inevitably be much better at English than I could ever hope to be at German. I think they appreciate the effort, but sometimes it's not practical or efficient and so everyone resorts back to the common tongue: English. Yet, it doesn't help that this 'English Arrogance' is not only accepted- but celebrated- by some British people: it's like a first-class ticket to anywhere and requires no effort on our behalf.
The rest of my journey had several more hiccups: the next train was full, my ticket got eaten by the machine and my phone stopped working. However, I found that as long as I was grateful for translation and thankful for the effort, then people were more than happy to help. As long as we aren't presumptuous with our 'international English' and at least try to make some effort, people will often understand and accept. "Parlez vous anglais s'il vous plait" is certainly coming in handy but I've vowed to make a conscious effort to improve my language skills: just because I'm from a culture that doesn't value foreign languages doesn't mean I can't place an importance them myself. To learn a language must give you access to another level of freedom when abroad. And I would love to be able to shake the 'tourist' label and feel more like a local.
So perhaps I'll sign up for a night class when I am back. The only problem will be deciding which language to study...French? German? Tagalog? Mandarin? Dutch?...