Viva L'Afrique!

To Africa and Back

Universal Language and the Escalator

It was about 9:15 in the evening when the train finally arrived to pick me up from Drancy, France. My phone was dead, and I have never been so nervous about missing a flight. You should ideally arrive at least 2 maybe 3 hours before an international flight’s departure time; I was already under the two hour mark, and I still had a 15 minute train ride ahead of me.

I was nervous. On top of running quite late, Charles de Gaulle isn’t the most traveler-friendly airport. In fact, it’s my least favorite airport. Period. It’s big, it’s confusing, and all the signs are in another language. It’s definitely a place I would like to have that extra hour or two to find my way.

Photo credit: Juliane Brandt

I watched the stops pass, one by one. Of course I had not accidentally hopped on an express train this time. It was about 3 stops before the airport when the man sitting across from me, who had been looking at me on and off, finally approached me.

I would put in quotes what he said, but I can’t speak French let alone remember it and then transcribe it here. I quickly responded Je ne parle pas Francais. Parles-vous Englais?

Non, je ne parle pas Englais. Uhhhh . . .

And so we began a game of charades/pictionary/any other means of communication possible. I admitted that I knew a little Francais, so the man – Jean Claude – tried to make the simplest forms of sentences. He wanted to know if he needed to get off at the first or second airport exit.

Second! Deux!  I told him. Me too! I gestured. I guess he understood, and he gestured back that he would follow me.

He smiled. Merci.

I smiled, happy with our ability to communicate without a common verbal language. It felt  good to feel so connected to others who are different from me.

Then he got my attention again. This one was much more difficult. We tried to exchange the few words we knew in each other’s languages but without any luck. Gestures didn’t work either. Jean Claude asked for a pen and paper, so I gave him a receipt and a marker – it was all I had.

He drew what seemed to be an escalator. I could tell he was asking what floor something was on. I told him I didn’t know. Well, I actually told him I didn’t want while pointing to my head because I somehow confused the verb to want with to know. In case you are wondering, connaître  (as in, Je ne connais pas Charles de Gaulle) would be the proper verb meaning to know; to be familiar with. Too bad I was too busy telling him that I did not want Charles de Gaulle.

Oh, well.

Jean Claude assumed I had no idea what he was talking about, so he finally gestured to follow him. We got off the train, and I did just that. I followed him here, there, up the stairs and all over. He pointed to the escalator and asked what we call it.

Photo credit: Christa Richert

Escalator, I laughed because I still couldn’t tell him that I knew all along that he meant “escalator,” I simply wasn’t familiar with the airport and able to answer. He told me he would take me to my gate – and he did.

I am so incredibly thankful to this man because I would have been lost in this enormous airport. As it turned out, he worked for the airport driving the buses between terminals. (If you didn’t know, Charles de Gaulle is a mess of an airport with terminals all over the place, so yes, they need buses.) He didn’t usually ride the train which is why he needed to know which stop to get off, but lucky for me, he knew the airport itself like the back of his hand. I showed him my ticket, and he took me right to the AirFrance gate like he promised.

He asked for my phone number. I wanted to tell him that it was very expensive due to international calling, and we could stay in touch via email if he’d like. Unfortunately, I do not know nearly that much French. I gestured some more, pointing to the phone and shaking my head – I really hope he didn’t think I was being rude. Dommage! I thanked him profusely – both in English and in French! – and he said he was glad we had met.

I had about an hour and a half, so our goodbye was brief as I hurried to check in and get to my gate. I was sure I would never make it, even with all this recent good luck.

(Since this is the end of Paris, I will upload the rest of my Paris photos tomorrow in a separate post.)

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