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You say 'potato,' and I say 'pomme de terre'

Finally, I was back in Paris! My husband and I walked through the cobbled square to our hotel, gazing around delightedly. The place was full of tourists, but unmistakably Parisian. I looked forward to repolishing my rusty French. My last visit to France, 14 years ago, had been an exciting practice session. I burbled away, secure in the knowledge that no matter how bad my language skills, no true-blue son or daughter of French soil would abandon the language of Napoleon and De Gaulle, the lingua franca of art and diplomacy, for the crudities of the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Deciding there was no time like the present, I walked into the hotel and up to the reception desk. In my best French, I informed the elegant young woman sitting there that we had a reservation.

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"Name, please?" she asked, in English only slightly less native-sounding than mine.

Crestfallen, I pronounced our name with my ordinary American accent. I didn't even need to spell it.

"Enjoy your stay," she said as she handed us the key, tossing off the colloquialism with a casual air.

"A fluke," I remarked to my husband as we took the elevator up to our room.

We deposited our suitcases and ventured out to enjoy our first cafe. The waiter swept up to our table.

"Thé, s'il vous plâit," I requested.

He leaned toward me. "Weed meelk?" he murmured.

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Later, as we strolled out the door after our break, the words, " 'Ave a nahs deh," floated after us.

I was stunned. What had happened to the lingua franca? It had turned into English, that's what. Gaullism was out. Americanisms - jeans, hamburgers, computers, even language - were very much à la mode.

One evening, we eavesdropped as a Frenchman and a Swede conducted a business discussion at the next table - in English. (We discovered the Swede's nationality when he commented that pig's feet were not considered a delicacy in Sweden.)

In the museum line, the German-speaking couple ahead of us asked for their tickets in English. The ticket seller handed them over without a blink. She explained to the couple (in English) that photographs were not allowed. Feeling slightly ostentatious, I asked for our tickets in French. The ticket seller eyed me contemptuously. Handing me the tickets, she informed me in English that photographs were not allowed.

Eventually, we left Paris for Lyon. Arriving at the Hôtel de la France, I resolved to fling myself into the breach one last time. "Bonjour," I said, as the proprietor shuffled up to greet us. "Nous avons une réservation."

"Nom?" I gave him our name.

He scanned his reservation book. "Non," he said, "pas de réservation."

No reservation? I explained as fluently as I could in French that our hotel in Paris had called the day before. Then I waited for him to switch to English. He didn't. Still using French, he told me that reservations had to be confirmed over le fax.

As he spoke, I almost forgot about our room problem in the astonishment of realizing that I had stumbled onto possibly the last living Gaullist. Here was someone who couldn't, or wouldn't, speak English. My opportunity to burble had finally arrived. My non-French-speaking spouse, who had been communicating with Parisian waiters on his own, stood by, impressed, while I negotiated. A few exhilarating minutes later, we had a room for the night.

I still tingled with triumph when we went out that evening to sample the famous cooking of Lyon. The restaurant hostess greeted us with the words, "Inside or out?"

"Là-dedans," I replied firmly. She looked surprised, but pleased.

"Suivez-moi," she said as she led us indoors.

The old lingua franca keeps a low profile these days, but it's still around if you look for it. English may be swarming over the battlements, but it hasn't yet captured the flag. If we try, those of us who love to use the traditional language of diplomacy can still find people who appreciate our efforts. Or, to paraphrase the general himself: I lost some linguistic battles; I did not lose the war.


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