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A Reader Asks: I’d Love to Go to France But I Don’t Speak French – Help!

Avenue des Champs Elysees -- A Must-Do! Enjoy lunch at an outdoor cafe and people watch, then shop! shop! shop!

Avenue des Champs Elysees — A Must-Do! Enjoy lunch at an outdoor cafe and people watch, then shop! shop! shop!

Reader Sue asks:

I would love to plan a solo trip to Paris but I speak absolutely NO French. Will I be able to navigate the city, hotel and restaurants? It was easy when I went to Rome because almost everyone spoke some English.

Sue – I understand completely how you feel. I was wondering the same thing on my first trip to France. Next week I’m heading to Japan for my inaugural visit and have that same “am I going to be able to navigate ok?” thought in my head. It’s a common fear many of us have when traveling to a place where we do not speak the language.

After reading these tips, I have a feeling you’ll be much more comfortable and will be booking your trip in no time!

Here’s what I do when I go to a new city where I do not speak the language:

Get on the Bus, Gus!

Get a ticket for the city’s tour bus (if they have one) in order to get the lay of the land. Audio in English is available. Even if the bus is a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus, I usually will do the first lap on the bus without hopping off, just to get grounded on what’s where and learn how far apart the various sites are that I want to see. I look for a hop-off stop that has either shopping or lunch choices (or both) and plan my next go-around on the bus to hop-off at this location, see the sites and take a mid-day break.

Your hotel concierge will know if there is a such a bus and the closest place to the hotel to hop on. You may even be able to buy the ticket from the hotel concierge, so ask.

Google “tourist bus” or “sightseeing bus” and your city name. Here’s a start:

  • Offers sightseeing buses in many cities around the world. In Paris, they offer a 1- or 2-day ticket. Go for the 2-day because there was just so much to see!
  • Same as above … multiple cities and multiple day passes with a discount if purchased online with fixed dates.

Enlist the Help of a Pro (A Pro Who speaks English, that is!)

Look for guided tours with tour guides who speak English. Google “guided tours” or “guided walking tours” and your city name.
Here’s a start (again, I’ll use Paris and Tokyo as examples):

Also check TripAdvisor for the guided tours to not only get feedback from other travelers but to gain confidence in your selection since you’ll be traveling solo.

Maps, Maps, Maps!

Get maps – from the airport, hotel, tourist stands, mobile apps … whatever, get some! I usually find the map given by the hotel concierge is what I end up using, but it is always worth checking out several maps to find the one you’re most comfortable with. Some have easier to read street signs, while others may have easier to find tourist sites. Definitely ask the hotel concierge to highlight where your hotel is on the map so you can find your way back!

Mobile apps such as Galileo and CityMaps2Go are worth looking into. A map app (say that three times fast!) that offers offline maps is great for when you don’t have access to wifi when you’re roaming around town.

Make it Easy on Yourself – And on the Other Guy!

Always get a business card from the hotel upon check-in. Use this to show a taxi driver when you want to return to the hotel. It is much, much easier to show the driver a business card compared to LOUDLY and slowwwly giving the driver the hotel name or address in English hoping they will understand.

Circle the highlights on the map of where you’d like to go. Better yet, have a picture of the site you’re venturing off to (snipped from one of the extra maps). If you get lost, ask someone for a point in the right direction by showing them the circle on the map or the picture of where you’re trying to get to.

Speak the Language!

While Rosetta Stone and other language programs may be great for helping you learn a foreign language, they take lots of time and lots of dedication. If multiple trips to a country are in your plans, then this effort may make sense.

For a first-time trip to a country, go simple yet smart! Get Google Translate for your mobile phone. You can type in a phrase and see the local equivalent appear on the screen. There is also an audio button so you can listen to the correct pronunciation or have someone local listen to what you are trying to convey. See how easy it is to now speak the language!

Stay Where the Tourists Stay

For your first time in a new city, select a hotel in a touristy area. Chances are high that due to all the tourism, the folks working in restaurants, stores, train stations, etc. will speak multiple languages, with English being a high probability.

In Paris, because they have millions of tourists from outside of France, I had no issue with basic communications. Most restaurants had the English words for all food items listed beneath the French words. Often the words are understandable to you even if they are in French:

Salad = salade

Chicken = poulet

Beef = boeuf

Red wine = vin rouge

I won’t have this easy of a time with Japanese. When I have been in the Far East in the past, I look for restaurants where their menus have pictures. Then I can easily point to a picture of what I what. I’ve never gone hungry this way nor eaten anything of a major negative surprise.

Follow The Pros in the Know

Seek out blogs and websites specific to your upcoming trip. For Paris, check out Karen Fawcett’s Bonjour Paris. Karen’s site is a great source for information and resources in Paris.

In a nutshell . . .
Go, have fun, you’ll be fine and all without speaking French! I’d bet a bottle of French Vin that you’ll fall in love with Paris and will soon be talking about going back again!

Readers … what other tips do you have for Sue (or for anyone a bit uncomfortable about traveling to a non-English-speaking locale)?




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