What it’s Like to Solo Travel in France Without Knowing French

The French are very proud to be French. And quite frankly, with their rich history, incredible monuments, and worldwide cultural impact, they have every right to be. But much like the over zealous American at a 4th of July barbecue, the French can be a little loud about their love of their country. But, instead of expressing their nationalism through odd quirks like chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” repeatedly or donning every eagle-branded piece of clothing they own once a year, the French celebrate their Frenchness daily and they do it through speaking French.

This is great if you know French, but terrible if you, like me, do not speak a single word of French. In the beginning of my travels, this created a ton of anxiety for me. To the point where I wouldn’t want to go into restaurants for fear of having to navigate ordering and I really wouldn’t speak out in public for fear of standing out as an American. It also, unfortunately, led to me saying some pretty stupid, albeit very funny, things as I attempted to speak the native tongue.

imposing and close up view of the Eiffel Tower
Jessica Moore | Lets Go

The first and perhaps worst of my cringe-worthy attempts at French came from my ill-informed notion that to say “I don’t speak French” in French, one would say “No parlez vous Francais.” Now, if you know French, you just laughed out loud. If you don’t, it turns out that for my first three days in France, I was attempting to say “I don’t speak French” by instead asking “No, do you speak French?” It took many people laughing and responding with “Yes” before I finally caught on that something may be awry.

Once I learned the actual phrase, “Je ne parle pas Français,” it was another day before I learned I was mispronouncing it and that people still had no idea what I was trying to say. Regardless, I share all of this because my early failures in French taught me three things: 1. the French are forgiving; 2. the French are kind; and 3. you don’t need to know French at all to get around France alone. French is hard and the people that know that best are the French. If you try, give a nice bonjour everywhere you go and smile—you’ll get where you need to go. And if you look dumb or silly, who cares? You’ll never see these people again anyway!

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