Last weekend I took a day trip to Sète, a seaside town close to Montpellier. The town has recently become a tourist attraction, with restaurants filled with fresh fish and coffee shops serving ice cream. A port city dating back to 1666, it has beautiful old buildings lining its numerous canals. After exploring what the city streets had to offer, I hiked to an observation point on Mont Saint Clair. Near the top of the climb, I met another foreigner—a friendly woman named Doris.
I encountered Doris at a staircase on the trail, as she struggled to carry her bike up the steps. She had made it about halfway when I caught up to her. Suppressing my first instinct to mind my own business, I offered my assistance, in French. Tentatively but gratefully, Doris said yes.
Her bike was sturdy, built for going long distances and carrying extra bags, making it awkward to carry. Nonetheless, with me lifting from the back and she from the front, we made it the rest of the way up.
When you don’t speak the same language, carrying a bicycle up a staircase is one way to break down the communication barrier. For one, it gives you something to talk about. I asked if she had pushed the bike all the way up the hill, and she told me about the man who had given her a ride. We did not say much else as we climbed, but when we got to the top, Doris said, “Merci,” and I said, “Pas de souci” (no problem). We smiled and I turned and climbed the short distance remaining on the hill.
I quickly realized that the observation deck was the obvious place for both of us to be going, and naturally we ended up standing next to each other again.
This time she asked me where I was from, and I answered, “California.” But what Doris heard me say, and repeated back to me, was “Montpellier.” This happened because the human ear hears all sorts of things that make sense in context, even if they are not at all what was said. Doris probably assumed I had said Montpellier because the city’s large university makes it a logical place for a student to be living.
The ear is even more likely to make up words when encountering unfamiliar sounds, which happens mostly when one listens to a foreign language. This was my first clue that French was not Doris’s native language. In fact, when I asked, she told me her preferred language was Spanish. I told her English was better for me, and it turned out her English was about as good as my French—sufficient to make it through day-to-day conversations. I tried to make our English conversation easier with a few considerations I picked up while conversing in French: eye contact, slow speech and enunciation.
As we looked out over Sète, we talked about where we were from, what we were doing in France and what we would be doing when we returned home. She told me she was from a town of 3,000 people in Austria, where she recently lost her job due to outsourcing (or “sourced out,” as she put it). She was on a spontaneous biking trip and did not know when she would return home. I told her about being a student at the University of Montpellier and about what I am studying.
We ended our conversation by agreeing that Sète, although beautiful, was too industrial for either of our tastes. We arrived at “industrial” to describe the city when Doris gestured out over the port, the cranes and the freight carriers. When I suggested the word “industrial,” Doris nodded with recognition and I experienced a moment of elation—for the first time in a month, I was the one finding words, not searching for them.