Sunday, March 27, 2016

Dinner and a show: updating a few comments from earlier

In my last post, I mentioned that we had not yet witnessed an accident. That is no longer true.

Late last week we were enjoying a beautiful day with our first visitors. Our balcony windows were opened wide to let in the sun and air and sound. No sooner had we begun dinner than we heard the unmistakable thud of a car accident in the street below. This is the aftermath of what we witnessed (thanks to Bea for the photo):

Minutes after the accident a couple of curious trams swung by to see what was going on.

I love this photo precisely because I do not understand so many things about it:
  1. The damage on the brown car lies exclusively in front. It looks like the impact was on the passenger side of the front bumper, and that bumper has served its duty. That's not much of a stretch, except...
  2. The black car is undamaged in back. As best we could tell, it was only damaged in the front. Why wouldn't the two cars be facing each other? Except...
  3. This is a one way street, and here it crosses the tram line, not another street. Only a significant talent for rule-breaking above and beyond the norm could accomplish a front-to-front impact here.
  4. Now look more closely. How did the black car get there? From its angle, it looks to have threaded the needle of two pedestrian-protection posts and passed through a pedestrian signal light. That's impressive driving or grade A wizardy.
  5. Look even more closely. The black car sits atop the loading platform for the tram, which involved a climb of two large stairs. This affirms the angle proposed in the previous point.
  6. How did this happen, and how did the cars end up like this? I have no idea that doesn't involve magic.
Some of our new neighbors may be slow to make space when the front of the bus is crowded and the back is wide open, but there was no hesitation to jump in to help the wounded.
The trams approached the intersection aggressively, which motivated the bystanders to push the second car out of the way shortly after this photo was taken.

But I tell you, there was honking. Lots and lots of honking from people who DID NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS.

Yes. The honking.

We woke Sunday morning to the strange sounds of people cheering. I had figured that it was either some kids causing a ruckus or some older kids who had stayed out much too late. It turns out that a 10K was passing beneath us (and the marathon passed by later in the day).

Everything is awesome when you're nearing the end of a 10K.

Police set up shop at the intersections to keep the cars and mopeds at bay. They had plenty of warning, but apparently some of the drivers were very unhappy that they had to wait for the runners to go by.

We're still laughing over the honking (video credit to Bea, who was fascinated by the ambulance following the group at the tail end of the race)

As my good friend Rob would say, "More honking!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rules and rule-breakers

"The first rule of driving in Marseille is that there are no rules."

--told to me by a Dutch film studies student, relating his first day commuting in Marseille

Witnessed during my daily commute in Marseille.


The form looked official enough. It was part of the stack of papers I was filling out in order to obtain my visa, and I wanted to make sure everything was correct. My friend Jolene had years of experience leading semester programs in France, so I asked for her help in sorting through the language, the expectations, and the culture. She was walking me through the form line by line, but it didn't take long for the process to baffle me.

"This line says that you are supposed to say 'courriel' rather than 'email' or any other term, according to a law from 1996."

"What?!? I can't call it email?"

"Not quite. No one actually calls it courriel. But they're obligated to tell you that you're supposed to call it that instead of email."

"I don't understand."

"You will. Sometimes rather than going the easy route, they take a stand against incursions into the language. 'Email' is an English word, whereas 'courriel' is distinctly French. But everyone says 'email.'"

I've been here a month. I had to look up what that word was that I was supposed to use instead of email.

I send my courriel from this keyboard. Look very carefully. 
It revels in its non-QWERTYness. In the right-hand corner of the screen there is a small EN, which tells my keyboard to think it's QWERTY. This allows me to touchtype, but it devastates any attempts to hunt and peck.


How does a seven six-year old navigate this?

I am generally a rule follower. Part of it is my moral compass, and part of it is the social awkwardness of getting caught breaking a rule. So I read up on how to use (and actually pay for) public transportation, and I'd found out that we could get reduced fairs for our daughter. We bought bus tickets from the airport to Gare Saint Charles, the rail station in the middle of town that also serves as a hub for the metro. The adult tickets included a single ride ticket for public transportation, but our daughter's cheaper bus fare did not. No big deal. But the ticket vending machine did not include an option for a child.

Anne sought out an RTM worker to ask how to buy our daughter a ticket. [Imagine this is all in French because I have magically learned it.]

"Je suis desole, Monsieur. Can you please tell us how to buy a children's ticket for our seven year old..."

"Elle a six ans" ("she has six years"...meaning "she is six years old") he interrupted.

"Quelle...?" Anne said slowly.

Very deliberately, but losing patience: "Elle. A. Six. Ans."

His insistence made the light go on for us. Our suspicions were confirmed when we checked the info on the RTM site: les enfants six years and under ride for free with a paying parent. So I guess elle a six ans, at least according to our RTM expert.


There will be some overlap in our posts, but you'll pick up differences due to the point of view. You may have read part of this before.

On The Day We Tried to Find a Bank, we visited a half dozen or so branches. It was exhausting and confusing and a little frightening, because the rules were definitely different. We knew we were Not From Here, and we had just begun to find our bearings.

We stepped inside La Poste Banque and figured we had found la line for la banque rather than for la poste, but the man behind the first desk who decided what line you went to next began gesturing to us. I think he was saying something rapidly in French, too, but I was a bit shell-shocked. Anne figured out that he was saying something about taking a number, so she looked around for the number machine. He gestured some more, and we found the machine behind us.

We stared at it blankly. This was not the simple pull-tab number from the Purple Cow.

The man gestured some more.

Finally he got up and walked briskly over to us. I figured we were about to be sent to bank number eleventeen, but instead he pushed a button, and the machine spat out a number.

He walked back to his desk and sat down.

Then he immediately called us over.

Anne tried to mention that our number did not match the number displayed overhead for "Now Serving," but he would have none of it. He gave us the friendly hand wave of don't-worry-about-it, and he insisted we come up right away.

It was very important that we have a number, though it didn't matter that we had the right number.

We had to come back the next day with more paperwork, and when he saw us come in, he jumped out of his seat and led us past the long line of people straight to the desk of the person whose help we needed.

I've mentioned both of these last two stories to Jolene, and she's assured me that she is not at all surprised.


Our daughter got a library card and checked out an array of English and French book. After a few days of checking out a number of museums and stores in the neighborhood, she was itching for some imaginative play, and I returned home from work at just the right time.

"Dad, will you play library with me?"

"Sure. Do you want me to help you shelve books or read some with you?"

"No. You're visiting the library. I work here. You need to check out some books."

"OK. I'd like to check out these books."

"May I see your library card?"

"Here it is."

"No it isn't. This is just a piece of paper. We need to get you a library card."


"May I see your passport?"


"And your visa?"


"Do you have a lease from your apartment or a bill?"


"Do you have a letter from the owner?"

"I can find one."

"Do you have a bill for electricity or water to show that you have an apartment?"


"OK. Please come back here tomorrow with all of your papers, and we'll see if we can get you your card. Now please leave the books you wanted to check out--you'll have to wait until you have your card."


Our new Dutch friend living in Marseille who told us that there are no rules for driving here is mostly correct. But it would be more accurate to say that the rules that are on the books are not the rules that everyone follows. It takes a good deal of experience to figure out how it all works.

Par example:
  • There is a minimum of three lanes on any road with the opposing traffic. The dotted line down the middle of the road belongs to velos and motorcycles, who are allowed to pass at will*, so long as they stop at traffic lights. (*I saw a special case of this on my commute home from work today. A motorcyclist became impatient with the pace of passing the idling cars of the moped in front of him, so he swerved to the right, hopped the curb, and passed about a dozen cars on the sidewalk right in front of an elementary school. The only thing that made this notable was that the sidewalk had special railings to protect pedestrians from traffic, so this took evasive maneuvers.) 
Here I am, taking my life in my own hands, walking in the middle of the motorcycle lane.
  • Honking is required for many occasions. When, not if, the front person at the light doesn't notice it change to green because he or she is busy with a smartphone, the trailing cars must honk at least one long and one short blast. When a car gets stranded in the middle of an intersection because the driver didn't want to wait another light cycle despite there not being room to proceed, the cross traffic drivers must honk repeatedly until the road clears, and then leave with a parting blast. When a car with a green light stops for pedestrians waiting to cross*, the drivers two and three cars back must honk; the car just behind the stopped car does not honk. When a driver can't find a parking space when picking up a friend, he first honks a couple of times, then turns on the hazards and leaves the car in the street for a few minutes. (*I have seen this happen multiple times--people stop, and then they wave you to cross. You are jaywalking. They don't care.)
  • No matter what the signs say, if a car can get past you, that is a parking space. It does not matter if a pedestrian can get by on the sidewalk parking space. All mirrors are folded in when the car is parked.

Fairly decent parking here, though the Mercedes has erred by leaving a gap for someone to walk by.
  • They have another name for jay-walking here: crossing the street. My rule-anxious daughter is unhappy that we're teaching her how to assimilate.

This is a city of nearly a million people, and we have yet to witness an accident. We are shocked and impressed. 

That is what happens when everyone understands how the system works.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Yes, It's going to be hard, and that's ok.

From the time of our initial thoughts of living in France, our daughter's reactions to this have swung widely. When it was not even a certainty, she was excitedly bragging about seeing the Eiffel tower to all of her friends. At that point, we tried to dissuade her a little – remind her that it wasn't a sure thing, that sabbaticals were not always easy to get and that she shouldn't get her hopes up yet. Then, when it was approved and we were really going to go, her attitude shifted again. She refused to go; she was worried about everything – friends, language, housing. Especially after the Paris attacks, there were general underlying fears. In terms of language skills, again and again people assured her that picking up the language would be easy. They assured her: “Kids are like sponges, you'll just soak it up. You'll see, soon you'll be more fluent than your parents.” I'm not faulting these individuals – certainly their assurances were well-meaning, and it did go a long way in changing her attitude about France. But learning a language is not easy, even for kids. She's not starting in preschool with a classroom of anglophones who are at the same level. She's in a largely French school – or at least one in which the majority of kids are already fluent in French. (Many of them have a third language as well – Portuguese, German, Czech, Chinese, Arabic, Yoruba – the whole gamut.) She feels singled out, and lost on the “French days” when she doesn't even know how to ask for her lunch.

We tried to give her a head start with online language programs, but even some of these assured kids that learning the language would be “easy” and it would come to them just by playing with French kids on the playground. Last week, after only one full week in school, she came to us in tears saying “I don't know French yet. Why don't I know French yet?” One week. But, this was supposed to be easy, and it's not. Learning a language is not easy – not for adults, and often not even for kids. At the time, I almost laughed it off thinking, “Well, it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take some time.” But that got me thinking to a broader level – why do we always assure our kids that it's going to be easy? Why can't we admit that many things in school – and in life – are hard, and they will require hard work?

I hear these types of comments often: “Yeah, he's reading Harry Potter books already. It just came naturally to him.” “Yes, I know – she can play a piece once or twice and she'll have it memorized.” I think this is largely rooted in a parents' efforts to deny any personal praise for these skills “Yeah, I don't know how he does it – we're lucky – it just comes naturally.” But to me, this can sometimes instill new anxieties about my own child. I thought that she was fairly musical, but piano did not come easily to her. Reading did not come easily. Making friends doesn't always come easily. And learning French is not easy, despite all the assurances to the contrary.

                                                               The gardens at Parc Borely

I know full well that the desire to assure kids that it's “easy” is most often rooted in impatience and frustration. And sometimes kids get whiny over things that are genuinely easy. No, it's not “too hard” to put your dishes in the dishwasher, nor to put your clothes in the hamper. Even tying your shoes can be easy, once you put your mind to it. And when I first listened to my daughter's fears, this was my first reaction - “Why is lunch so hard? You can just point to something and say “s'il vous plait” and that's usually enough.” But I remember from my own traumatic move at age 11 to a new school in a new country – the things that are supposed to be “easy”are usually the hardest. How do you know how to line up? Where do you sit for lunch? What can you do on the playground when you don't have any friends? These things are genuinely hard, so why do we always try to tell our kids that they're easy?

Today was a rough morning. There were many tears both last night and this morning, and we pretty much had to drag her to school. I had to assure her that her face wasn't covered in red splotches anymore by the time we reached school. Thursdays are her least favorite days – for reasons that might seem trivial to an adult. They have to take a bus along the coast and have gym class at the magnificent “Parc Borely” bordered by the mountains on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. Sounds rough, right? But this is her worst day. She has to take the public bus and doesn't know where to sit. She has to eat lunch in a different room with French-speaking lunch staff. She was stressed that she has to say that she's finished – in French – and then ask for dessert. (Fortunately today's dessert is not “yaourt”- yogurt - because to properly pronounce that in French, you practically have to pretend you're gagging on yogurt.) This school is so different than anything she's experienced before. Though it's in a beautiful old Baroque building, it's covered in tags. It's urban, it's gritty. For recess, the whole class gets in a freight elevator to the roof of the building to a paltry-looking playground – though it does have a breathtaking view of the city. These changes are hard. And now, finally, I've decided that I will no longer tell her that it's easy.

        And yes, this is where my child has gym class each Thursday - pauvre cheri. 

I see this desire for things to come easily in teaching as well. I love reading papers that flow smoothly; it's a joy to see the work of students who have a natural gift for writing. Teachers revel in the prodigies – it's hard to avoid. It's simply fun to teach really smart kids. And the flip side can be frustrating. It's hard to sit down for many grueling sessions with kids as they try to form their ideas into a decent thesis. It's hard to teach and reteach a concept that they just “don't get.” And I wonder – to what degree does this defeatism lead to learned helplessness? Have kids been told too many times that things should be “easy”so that when they're not, they give up?

As I was dragging her to school today, there was nothing more I wanted more than to cave to her requests – to let her stay home for the day, or even to homeschool her for the rest of the year. It hurts to see my child in genuine distress. (By the time I got home, I was the one with red splotches on my face.) But I have to fight this desire for things to be easy. As I was giving her one of many hugs this morning, while fighting off the tears, I told her again and again “Yes, I know it's hard. Learning a new language in a new school is not easy. It will take time and it will take practice, but it will get easier. Right now, I know that it's hard, but that's ok.”

               At the Calanques. Fortunately she still enjoys the field trips with her dad. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Have a safe trip!

Most of our family and friends expressed joy and perhaps a little jealousy when we told them we were traveling to France on sabbatical. The location of Marseille met with a broader range of reactions.

Where's that?

Is it anywhere near Paris?

Is it safe?

Travel by Google bears a strong resemblance to doctor by Google: you'll get true information, but often it is so far out of context that you won't know what to do with it...other than get scared once you've been convinced that you're going to die.

And so...Marseille has acquired a reputation for being one of the more dangerous cities in Western Europe. It boasts a major European port, and there's a fairly active drug trade, which brings with it gangs and mob activity (or maybe I have cause and effect a little twisted around there). Tourism sites like TripAdvisor host message boards filled with cautions about someone and their friends getting their pockets picked or their cameras stolen. These are valid concerns.

Marseille is also the second largest city in France, and its location makes it a prime gateway for an economic migration that has been ongoing for decades. Donald Trump would recommend some walls here, but the fear that this inspires is founded on ignorance bordering on racism.

We did our due Google diligence, and at least one of us was a little afraid. (I won't point fingers, but let's just say that it's the person who can tell you all the ways you could die in a chem lab.) But, just for fun, we took a look at Grand Rapids with Google, and its crime numbers aren't that far off from Marseille, even with about a quarter of the population. I'm still not sure if we should be less afraid here or terrified when we return home. We were convinced, though--Marseille would be a fine place to spend six months.

Then came Paris, and the heartbreak and fear, and having to sit down with our daughter after she turned on her Saturday morning cartoons, only to walk into our bedroom to tell us that "something bad happened in we can't go to France."

From then on it seemed that all I heard was "Have a safe trip!" I admit that I don't know if people were more apt to say it now, or if I was just more aware of it, but that admonition followed me everywhere. (Let me be clear that this was a caring and appreciated sentiment. But I couldn't help but ponder what might be inspiring its frequency.)

This was about the time we were wondering if our visas were ever going to go through, and the delays put our flight plans and apartment hunt on hold as well. While dealing with the stress building in in knots in my stomach, I ran into a colleague who quickly figured out that I was at wit's end with our arrangements and the possibility of a few weeks or even months of delay for my research. "It's all in God's plan," she said. "Maybe there will be another terrorist attack, and you'll be safe from it here!"

That struck me as odd. It was not her intention, but it came across as, "If something bad happens in the time before you arrive, it will be OK, because you and your family will be fine." I did not share her sentiment, and I will not share my inner monologue, though I'm quite confident I've made my share of equally awkward comments that I've wanted to take back the moment they left my mouth. I have to give her the benefit of the doubt. But this did not change my desire to get everything fixed now so that we could fly out by our planned date.

If I'm honest, I have to admit that moving here did push the fear of terrorism from the abstract to reality for me. It's not a realistic fear, but how many fears actually are? But when night comes, logic doesn't always prevail. And I found that I worried far more about my daughter than anyone or anything else. it safe here?

We've noticed high security from the moment our trip began. Teams of heavily armed soldiers patrolled Charles De Gaulle in Paris, and we were a little shocked to run into more soldiers in the subways here. Nearly every day we see a group of four or six or even eight armed soldiers walking patrol in the city streets, part of Plan Vigipirate. We pass through metal detectors at museums and even the library, though I'm not entirely convinced they're any good, since my hip hasn't set one off yet. A colleague of mine who is an expert in French culture has helped me understand what we're seeing--there is a little security theater in this, but it seems to reassure the citizens that action is being taken. It has taken some getting used to, but I think we're getting there.

The reality, though, is that we face a much bigger risk here with the traffic. We walk almost everywhere, and we have to cross busy streets. The mopeds are insane--the only rule they seem to mostly obey is stopping at red lights, though they pass all of the cars to get to the front of the line first. One has to be constantly on guard to stay safe.

Our young traveler is unafraid of deux baguettes and le fromage that will soon rest upon their slices.

As for the crime, we've been told to expect pick pockets when in crowds, especially in the touristy areas. Don't carry a wallet in the back pocket. Don't carry wads of cash, and don't flash the cash that you do have. But we've been assured that there is little violent crime here, and the vast majority of it revolves around the drug trade. I'm not worried.

We discuss risk assessment in some of our intro chemistry courses, and it doesn't take much effort to demonstrate that the things we fear most (plane crash, terrorist attack, etc.) have about the same odds as those for winning the Powerball jackpot (and I note that I have yet to purchase a Powerball ticket). We become numb or accustomed to the more ordinary, like gun violence back home. In our first few weeks here we learned that a Calvin colleague had been shot while walking near his home in a quiet neighborhood (he was back at work in a couple of days!). Around the same time another man went on a shooting spree in Kalamazoo, which is less than an hour from our home in the States. This time our new acquaintances here were very concerned for us and our life in Michigan. it safe at home?

It's easy to let fear rule. But fear is also a choice, and I'd rather focus on what travel opens for us. I'm grateful for the opportunity to travel in my work. I'm grateful that I can interact with a wide variety of people in the lab and in my commute, reinforcing that our humanity makes us far more alike than different. I'm grateful for lessons from friends like Jolene and Otto in Calvin's French department, who emphasized that learning a language should be a much deeper experience than simply navigating transactions for food and shelter; we need to aim to get to know our hosts and their culture, which requires work on our part (I'm still plugging away at it). I'm grateful for friends and family who want the best for us and want us to remain safe.

Our delay did in fact save me, but not in the way that anyone had anticipated. I can now say quite confidently that I was saved from my own French language ineptitude, and I'm not sure how I would have managed living on my own here for a few weeks before Anne and Bea arrived. We're sticking together as we slowly get to know this dazzling city and this amazing culture. We're not completely safe, but adventures never are.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"Comment dit-on?"

“Comment dit-on...”?

Language lessons – for real.

If I was at least halfway fluent and more business-savvy, I think I could set up a profitable plan to teach the language that you really need to know when moving to a foreign country. Most guidebooks are sufficient in instructing you on how to ask for the washrooms, how to order a baguette, and how to explain “Je ne parle pas français.” If you're bold enough to initiate a conversation, you might be able to comment on how beautiful it is on the Champs-Elycees, or that the Mona Lisa has such a mysterious smile.

When I reflect on the old high school French classes, I mainly remember learning lots of school-related vocabulary (cahiers, devoirs, stylo) and lots of discussion prompts about family relationships and vacation plans. Most of the online language tutorials seem to rely heavily on learning colors, animals, and food. (One of Eric's favorite phrases is: “Je veux un croque-monsieur” - because you never know when you're going to need a open-faced ham-and-cheese sandwich in France.) And often the combination of vocabulary words that are cobbled together in these programs is simply laughable. I always know when Bea is working with the “Duolingo” program from the bursts of laughter from her room.

        “Mom! Guess what they just asked me to translate - 'You have a lovely duck sitting on your knee!' or 'The elephants are eating an apple.' How many elephants do you think can share one apple? Do you think they cut it into slices?”

So what do you really need to know when moving to a foreign country? These are the most useful – and unexpected - lessons I've learned so far from living in France:

1.) How to speak commerce. Ah yes – think of all the obtuse financial language that you only half-understand in your native tongue – now try learning it in a foreign language. Most likely this will involve relying on the few words that you know well like “compte bancaire”, “payer”, “louer” plus a great deal of pantomime. I only hope that you will encounter a bank representative as patient as ours.

2.) How to speak tech. Whole new world here. None of these words were even around when I took high school French. I barely remember “ordinateur” (computer). And there's nothing quite like visiting the cell phone place manned by fresh-faced, fast-talking twenty-somethings to crush your confidence in your language skills. (You know how stupid you feel when a young tech-savvy person tries to explain a technological skill rapid-fire? Yeah, now imagine that in French.) I've learned that the French are polite enough to repeat themselves if you don't understand the first time, but the second time – they will only say it faster.

3.) How to speak appliances. OK, our first main frustration with appliances in France is that so few of them have any words at all. I suppose in an effort to be more inclusive, they try to use pictoral symbols rather than words. This is pretty much analogous to using IKEA directions to assemble a piece of furniture. For example, what do you suppose the “suitcase” function is on our heater? We're going on vacation? Our heater is ready for a vacation? Our heater is giving us a not-so-subtle hint that we've overstayed our welcome?

Or – how about our dishwasher with the “intensive smart” feature. I mean seriously – who would want merely clean dishes when you could have “intensively smart” dishes? I've tried this setting three times, but each time it defaults to the “eco” setting. (Clearly a sign of the
eco-terrorism in Europe, most likely.)

Our “lave linge” (washing machine) is one of the few appliances with words, so I've learned key vocabulary terms such as “rinçage”, “essorage” and “vidange.” However, recently the “vidange” (drain) feature didn't work, so I had to talk to the repairman about it. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Uhh, la lave linge ne marche pas.” (The washing-machine doesn't work.)
Jean-Luc: “Quel est le problème?” (followed by some rapid-fire questions)
Me: “Uhh, il se lave, mais l'eau reste dedans,...uhhh...en bas.” (It washes, but the water stays at the bottom.)
Jean-Luc: rapid-fire questions, unintelligible
Me: “Uhh, et la dernière fois, il...comment dit-on...overflowed.

** Sidebar: In my opinion, “comment dit-on” is the single most helpful phrase in trying to communicate in French. Literally it simply means “how do you say...” which may seem childlike, but at least it always results in a smile. (Varying from genuine smiles to those tinged with thinly-veiled condescension.) Regardless, I'm convinced that even if you're talking like a toddler who can't even conjugate a simple verb, at least it shows that you're trying! At least, Jean-Luc knew I was trying.

Jean-Luc: “over... quoi?
Me: “Uhh, comme ça” followed by desperate pantomime. (This is far more successful than you might expect. Though by now I've now made a fool of myself by pantomiming in at least three different countries, so I'm pretty much an expert.)
Jean-Luc: “Ah oui bien sûr..” (More rapid-fire unintelligible French.)

In the end, he simply shrugged and said: "Hm, c'est bizzare” then asked me to call when it happens again. But he was very kind, complimented my French, and explained that:
C'est Marseille. Nous avons un accent, et nous parlons tres rapidement.” (It's Marseille. We have an accent, and we talk very quickly.”)
Then he slowed down dramatically and said: “Si je parle doucement comme ça, vous pourriez me comprendre.” (“If I talk gently like this, you could understand me.”)
He then returned to his rapid-fire French, saying, “Mais quand je parle rapidement....” unintelligible, unintelligible...

When he slowed down in that one sentence, it was probably my single clearest moment of comprehension in France – though fleeting.

4.) How to speak about errors in sales. OK, so this could be simple enough if it was the case of a mispriced item, but let's say - hypothetically speaking of course – that you get home and realize that you've been charged twice for one bottle of whisky. What if you realize that you don't have any solid proof that you only bought one bottle of whisky, so you have to put your best face forward and try to explain in bad French that you're not the type of person who could drink two bottles of whisky in one day. In this case, I would suggest the most important factor is not language skills, but imaging. I would recommend – hypothetically speaking - that you borrow a cute 7-year old to look as wholesome and family-friendly as possible. I mean, statistically speaking, a good, upstanding, nurturing parent with a cute 7-year old is 50% less likely to drink two bottles of whisky in one day. (Or 70% more likely, depending on the temperament of said 7-year old. But those are the outliers, I digress.) In this case, the cute 7-year old – preferably in pigtails and a red raincoat with trains on it – is the best bet to succeed in correcting a mistake and getting credit for your

Fortunately, the French love kids, so make sure to bring one along.