ezyang’s blog

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Tourist by day, Blogger by night

In which Edward travels France

Many, many years ago, I decided that I would study French rather than Spanish in High School. I wasn’t a particularly driven foreign language learner: sure I studied enough to get As (well, except for one quarter when I got a B+), but I could never convince myself to put enough importance on absorbing as much vocabulary and grammar as possible. Well, now I’m in France and this dusty, two-year old knowledge is finally being put to good use. And boy, am I wishing that I’d paid more attention in class.


Perhaps the first example of my fleeting French knowledge was when we reached the Marseille airport and I went up to the ticket counter and said, “Excusez-moi, je voudrais un... uhh...” the word for map having escaped my mind. I tried “carte” but that wasn’t quite correct. The agent helpfully asked me in English if I was looking for a map, to which I gratefully answered yes. Turns out the word is “plan.” I thanked the agent and consequently utterly failed to understand the taxi driver who took us to our first night’s accommodation in Plan-de-Cuques.

Still, my broken, incomplete knowledge of French was still better than none at all, and I soon recall enough about the imperatif and est-ce que to book a taxi, complain about coffee and tea we were served at Le Moulin Bleu (Tea bags? Seriously? Unfortunately, I was not fluent enough to get us a refund), and figure out what to do when we accidentally missed our bus stop (this involved me remembering what an eglise was). Though, I didn’t remember until Monday that Mercredi was Wednesday, not Monday.


Our itinerary involved staying in a few small French villages for the first few days, and then moving into the bigger cities (Lyon and Paris). Exploring small villages is a bit challenging, since the percentage of English speakers is much smaller and it’s easy to accidentally bus out to a town and find out that all of the stores are closed because it’s Monday and of course everything is closed on Monday! But there are also chances to be lucky: wandering out without any particular destination in mind, we managed to stumble upon a charming Christmas market and spontaneously climbed up a hill to a fantastic view of Marseilles.


Walking around in cold, subzero (Celsius) weather with your travel mates who have varying degrees of tolerance for physical exertion and the cold makes you empathize a bit with what your parents might have felt trucking you around as a kid during a vacation. After visiting the Basilica of Notre Dame in Lyon, I was somewhat at a loss for what to do next: the trip for shopping was a flop (none of us were particularly big shoppers), it was cold outside and the group didn’t have a particularly high tolerance for aimlessly wandering around a city. Spontaneity is difficult in a group. But it can happen, as it did when we trekked up to Tête d'Or and then cycled around with the Velo bike rent service (it’s “free” if you bike a half hour or less, but you have to buy a subscription, which for 1-day is one euro. Still quite a bargain.)


Teaching my travel mates phrases in French lead to perhaps one of the most serendipitous discoveries we made while at Lyon. We were up at Croix-de-Rousse at the indoors market, and it was 6:00; a plausible time for us British and American tourists to be thinking about dinner. I had just taught one of my travel mates how to ask someone if they spoke English (Vous parlez Anglais?) and she decided to find someone around who spoke English to ask for restaurant recommendations. The first few tries were a flop, but then we encountered an extremely friendly German visitor who was accompanied by a French native, and with it we got some restaurant recommendations, one of which was Balthaz'art, a pun on Balthasaur. After embarassingly banging on the door and being told they didn’t open until 7:30pm (right, the French eat dinner late), we decided to stick it out.


And boy was it worth it.


As for the title, noting the length of my blog posts, one of my MIT friends remarked, “Do you, like, do anything other than write blog posts these days?” To which I replied, “Tourist by day, Blogger by night”—since unlike many bloggers, I have not had the foresight to write up all of the posts for the next month in advance. Indeed, I need to go to sleep soon, since as of the time of writing (late Wednesday night), we train out to France tomorrow. Bonsoir, or perhaps for my temporally displaced East Coast readers, bonjour!

Photo credits. I nicked the lovely photo of Plan-de-Cuques from Gloria’s album. I’m still in the habit of being very minimalist when it comes to taking photos. (Stereotype of an Asian tourist! Well, I don’t do much better with my incredibly unchic ski jacket and snow pants.)

5 Responses to “Tourist by day, Blogger by night”

  1. Rémy Mouëza says:

    It turns out that “une carte” is a detailed map and “un plan” is a more abstract (and simpler) map, but both words can be used interchangeably unless you are in a restaurant where “la carte” is the booklets detailing the available dishes and menus.
    Note that if you don’t properly pronounce the R within “carte” (R is like trying to purr with the rear of your tongue) you may sound gibberish to a French speaker, hence the use of “plan” that should be easier for an English speaker to pronounce.

  2. Alp says:

    So during a few hours there was another haskell in Marseille ?! If I knew I would have showed you some nice places and would have suggested local drinks ;-)

  3. Dominic Morneau says:

    I’m a French Canadian and people here generally use “carte”. I think most people aren’t really aware of a difference between plan and carte in this context, but it does make sense when thinking about it.

    There are many differences besides the restaurant thing, but usually “carte” is “map” or “card”, and “plan” is “map” or “plan”. For example, “carte d’affaire” (business card) and “plan d’affaire” (business plan).

  4. Hmm, that’s quite interesting! Rémy, you’re probably right: I’ve forgotten how to roll my Rs :-)

    Alp, thanks for the generous offer! Perhaps I should publish travel itineraries.

  5. polux says:

    Next time you come in France blog about it! There are some hadkellers out there!

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