In the last year, I have realized many times how fortunate I am to be a native English speaker; English absolutely is the international language. It’s one thing to say it, or to know it in theory – I think we all know it – but to see it in action is another thing entirely. This evening, on the way home from one of the most frustrating, upsetting days I’ve had in a long time, I had my entire day turned around by another example of English’s international quality.
I got on the métro going home from work, and a couple stops later, at one of the major interchanges, three Korean backpackers got on, clearly just fresh from the airport or train station, on their European tour, heading to their hotel. I obviously felt a warmth and affinity for them, considering how recently I was in their shoes, and I even smiled to myself when I could tell they were congratulating themselves on getting to Paris, excited to get started on exploring the city. I’ve been there so many times, and there is little that beats that feeling of arriving somewhere long-awaited (where you don’t speak the language) after an arduous journey; you get on that last bit of public transportation that will take you to your destination, you can finally put your overstuffed bags down long enough to make your shoulders stop hurting, and you suddenly feel like you have conquered the city already.
For a while, they talked a bit amongst themselves, and then just sat contentedly, not next to each other, unfortunately. And then, a young Parisian guy, who was sitting next to me, asked one of the Korean guys where they were from. In English, heavily accented. The Korean guy laughed nervously and tapped his friend, who clearly spoke a little more English, but was working on unfolding a map. “Korea?” asked the Frenchman. The first Korean guy nodded, “Korea. Yes.”
When his friend finally had the map worked out, he showed it to the Frenchman and said, “We are going here,” pointing to a métro stop. The Frenchman thought for a second. “Twenty. Yes.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
They all smiled at each other, and the Korean guy folded up his map. I think half the car as watching the interaction.
Not far away, their friend, a girl, was sitting with a contended smile on her face, examining everyone in the car, just as I would do upon arrival in a new place. She smiled at me. I resolved to tell her, “Good luck” or “Have fun” when I walked past her to get off at the next stop. What I underestimated, however, was how many people would be getting off at my stop, and I was prevented from getting to wish her well by the man next to her, who turned out to be getting off then too, and turned to her to say, “Have a nice trip,” in heavily-accented English as he got off. I heard at least two other people express similar sentiments – in English – to the two guys as they passed them to exit.
The grin on my face as I got off said it all. I wish I’d gotten to say something to them as well, but it almost seems better that all that friendliness came from Parisians. No one in any of those exchanges was a native English speaker. Yet they all used English to be able to form the momentary bonds that will have made those people’s days and those kids’ trip that much better. I hope their trip to Paris is amazing.