I arrive in Paris via Reykjavik, the sunset at midnight slowly becoming the dawn. Immediately, I have to repress the reflex to speak English—when my bag bumps a man’s foot, when I get into a taxi. I tell the driver the address, but worry that he hasn’t understood (it’s such a tiny street, just a few blocks long). No choice now but to wait and hope for the best.
The process of waiting and trusting strangers has always been harder for me when I’m traveling alone. When I’m with other people, the prospect of being lost in a new city seems like an adventure, not an inconvenience. But when you have friends or family with you, they can double-check the route, and you can abandon your bags with them when you go to the café car.
When I’m by myself in American airports and trains, I feel pretty comfortable briefly relying on strangers to watch my stuff or tell me where the train is going. This is partly because I feel in some unsubstantiated way that I know how to pick them—if you have to leave your suitcase alone for a minute, the girl with the college sweatshirt and Vera Bradley bag is a pretty good bet, or the older couple munching sandwiches. Of course, this is a superficial judgment, since these people are just as likely as the rest of the population to be lost kleptomaniacs. Which is to say, not very likely.
In France, I’m much less confident about whom to pick. The businessman reading Primo Levi? The girl rolling a cigarette? The nice man running the café who gave me an extra espresso? While traveling, this uncertainty is a minor inconvenience, but while learning a second language, it becomes a bigger problem. With native speakers all around me, which ones should I copy? To look at it the other way, College Sweatshirt Girl is surely polite, but if I were a French speaker trying to learn English, I might not want to go around saying totes and ermahgerd. Funny as that would be.
The question of weird idioms and transgressions against the dictionary has even greater consequences for translation. What is normal stylistic usage for one poet might be bizarre for the average French person. So how weird do I make it in English? Is it ermahgerd, ohmigod, oh my god, or dear me? How polite is normal polite?
When I effusively thank my taxi driver (who has found this tiny street without directions, GPS, or any hesitation) I realize I only sort-of know the answer. So for now, I’ll just steal phrases from native speakers like a lost kleptomaniac. And I’ll probably say the French version of ermahgerd. At least once.