November 4, 2011


When I studied abroad in Paris back in 2007 it was the highlight of my trip, the proof beyond all else that I had managed to fool everybody and seem French, when somebody would ask me for directions. This happened a total of three times and I was elated after each instance.

Even if I never knew the way, I still felt in. I was being confused for a Parisienne. All my hard work had paid off. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t memorized everything in city in 4 months. I was being asked for directions.

Living in the heart of Lille and walking everywhere these past two years means that I know my way around town even better than FBF (in all fairness, he does live in the suburbs).

So when an elderly lady stopped me in the middle of the street to ask me for directions, I was feeling pretty confident. She asked me if I knew how to get to Aux Merveilleux, a pastry shop famous for it’s own creation called a merveilleux.

And as luck would have it, I did know where it was. I could have easily walked there from where she had stopped me. Feeling very French, I started to respond, only to realize that despite being able to get there myself, I was not going to be any help to a lost stranger. I do not know any street names.

In the panic of not being able to be any help whatsoever, I answered her, “hien… bon tu vas par là, et je suis desolée mais je ne connais pas les noms des rues, alors…. Tu continues par cette rue là et puis… en fait, est-ce que tu connais la rue de la monnaie?” (Umm.. well you take this road, and I’m sorry but I don’t know street names, so….. you continue down this street and then.. actually do you know rue de la monnaie?)

While she answered that she did in fact know where rue de la monnaie is, I realized a second huge mistake I had made when talking to a stranger, especially one who is older than me. I had been tu-ing her.

I corrected my mistake and vous-ed her for the rest of our short interaction, saying simply, “Alors vous vont aller jusqu’au rue de la monnai et puis vous prendrez à gauche. Après un moment, vous allez y arriver” (So go until you hit rue de la monnai and then turn left. After walking a bit you’ll get there).

She thanked me and went on her merry way.

Before when I got asked for directions I was on cloud nine, even if all I could mumble back in reply was “Je ne sais pas… desolée” with a very American accent.

This time getting asked for directions crushed my sense of Frenchness. After being here for two years I still couldn’t tell somebody how to get somewhere? And even worse, I didn’t remember to use vous?

I continued my day disappointed in my abilities. But my embarrassment served a greater purpose.

A few weeks later a woman who looked to be in her thirties stopped me on the street to ask me for directions to an Indian restaurant. To my surprise, not only did I know how to get there, but it was close enough to describe it without using street names. After remembering my mistake with the old lady, I made sure to use vous.

She thanked me while starting to follow my directions, and I continued on my original path feeling ever so Lilloise this time around.


  1. Getting asked directions in Boston was the first time I felt I belonged. Know exactly the feeling.

  2. Such a good feeling! Though the first few times it happened in Metz, I didn't know and then realized the thing they were looking for was literally fifty feet away and I felt like an idiot, haha. Though to make up for that, it happened twice the last time I was visiting Paris and I did actually know where things were (thank you 2006 summer course on the history of Paris through old maps!).

    I think not having a map + walking with another person talking and/or not paying attention to your surroundings gives the impression of confort with the city.

  3. Jenna: Exactly! It feels like you've finally been accepted into the club of locals.

    Andromeda: I hate when that happens! Although just because you know a city super well does not mean you know where every single restaurant/museum/etc is.

  4. Ha I know the feeling! Someone asked me for directions the other day, but it was to find a street a block away so it was easy. I don't know all of the street names either, but I'm getting there. I'm happy to be living in the city center! It feels good to finally know my way around ym new city- and yes- possibly better than my boyfriend bc I'm walking around all the time while he's au bureau!

  5. AHHH! That is one of my biggest fears - the 'accidental tu'! Nevertheless, you were able to give her the directions which is excellent. I've only successfully completed that one time and still usually have to revert to 'Je ne sais pas!'

  6. Dana: Glad I'm not the only one! I just don't pay attention to the street names while I'm walking around and seeing how windy French roads can be it's hard to say how to get from one place to the next!

    breadispain: I know! I hate the accidental tu. It happens more often than not for me I'm afraid as I'm just so used to tu-ing every French person I know (yes, I guess it's weird but la belle mère and I tu each other). And this is after two years of living here! UGH.

  7. Great story! In my family there is a joke that we have not really arrived in country until someone has asked me directions (usually in the first day or so). In France it is usually a German or eastern European tourist, but often enough a local...


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