I studied French for 9 years, from middle school through college. I’d considered studying abroad but I was too scared and I let the additional prices and fees be my excuse for staying stateside. By my senior year of college, I’d pretty much accepted that it wasn’t likely I’d ever go abroad. Then, my mom got a job working for a French company, who wanted to fly her out to Paris for meetings. Well, she simply couldn’t allow herself to go to Paris without me and somehow, the trip turned into a family vacation.
My mom and my step-dad don’t speak a lick of French and my brother, by the time we left, had completed his first year of the language. My translating skills were seldom needed, however, since many Parisians will switch to English for Americans because they want to practice. In spite of not being able to practice the language as much as I’d liked, I loved being physically immersed in French culture after having read about it for so long. What I hadn’t learned, however, was the “culture” of their Metro.
Living in Chicago, I had a lot of experience with public transportation. On the El, you get your ticket with a certain amount of money and you throw it away once the money has been used, or you get a pass for a certain amount of time but again, you throw it away once it’s been used. We assumed this was true for the Metro as well, so we were surprised when we were walking from one train to our connecting train, to be stopped by “Metro Police” asking to see our tickets. Out of sheer laziness (we didn’t go out of our way to use the trash cans), my mom, step-dad, and I had all kept our tickets from the last train but my brother had thrown his away. We didn’t understand why this was an issue, because the police spoke very little English but knowing we were American, were trying to communicate that way. I switched over to French for them and translated for my family that apparently not having a ticket in the tunnel that connects the two trains leads to a 50 Euro fine because people sometimes try to hop the gate to avoid paying for tickets…and because my brother didn’t have his ticket, they assumed that he’d done just that. I tried using the “We didn’t know, there aren’t any signs, we’re American!” argument with them but it didn’t work. Finally, my mom offered them her credit card, but they only took cash. My family and I looked at each other with flustered expressions when I translated that the punishment for not paying the fine was jail. Jail, for a fifteen year old American traveling with his family.
Luckily, my parents were able to pull together the very little cash they did have, and it was just enough to cover the 50 Euro fine. We were flabbergasted, mostly because there wasn’t a sign – neither in English nor French – that indicated that we needed to keep our tickets when transferring. I discussed that with the police a bit further and convinced them to give us a phone number to contact in order to dispute this. I guess next time I go to a new country, if I’m going to travel by public transit, I need to research its in’s and out’s. Lesson learned, but at least my French skills were put to good use!