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Helping Tourists (Or Not)

Tourists and City Map, Paris, 2010
Tourists and City Map, Paris, 2010

Whenever I see people with a clueless look on their face, a city map in one hand and a guidebook in the other, I tend to stop and offer help. It’s good karma for travelers like us. Plus, I’ve been there—lost in a new city, unable to read the damn map properly, looking for directions, etc.

But tourists can be really weird.

One Sunday, as I was taking a morning walk in Nantes, a couple stopped me in the street.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

“As a matter of fact, I do!” I replied enthusiastically.

Nor my eagerness or my language skills seem to impress them.  Apparently, they were expecting all French to speak English fluently. Well, be glad you didn’t ask my grand-ma for help.

“Yeah, where are the shops?” the woman asked abruptly.

“The shops? Like, what kind of shops?”

“The shops!” the woman repeated impatiently. “I need to shop!”

“I get that. But shop for what?”

“Well, clothes.” The “duh” was implied.

“Alright, you are here,” I started to explain. “You can go to Bouffay this way, there are tons of little boutiques. Or you can head to the department stores this way. But it’s Sunday, everything is closed today.”

“I need to shop today.”

“Then you are out of luck” I confirmed. “Businesses close on Sundays. Restaurants are open though, and so are a couple of bakeries. But clothing shops are closed.”

“But what do people do?”

“Er… they shop on weekdays?” I offered.

“This is ridiculous”.

I shrugged like only the French can—may as well fit the stereotype—and walked away.

The following Sunday, I bumped into a group of tourists glued to the doors of Decré-Lafayette. I could tell where this was going.

Le… er, shop. Quand open?”

These ones got bonus points for attempting to speak French.

“I’m sorry,” I replied in English. “Most shops are closed today. It’s Sunday.”

You should have seen the look of horror on their faces.

“But we have to be in Germany tomorrow!” they protested.

Again, I shrugged and directed them to the nearest bakery. At least, they wouldn’t go around telling everyone in Germany that the French had starved them.

I know, as a Canadian, it annoys me too that businesses are closed on Sunday in France. But seriously, isn’t it mentioned in all guidebooks? This is some basic info you should get before you leave home. And don’t most countries around the world take a day off during the week? North America has a 24/7 culture, but I remember a lot of businesses were closed on Sunday as well in Latin America and even in China.

French tourists can be strange too. I bumped into this family of five close to my parents’ place in Nantes. The parents and the kids were dressed extremely “bourgeois” (conservatively). The father was looking for a specific address. I don’t know the name of all the streets in Nantes (some are only a couple of meters long!) so I asked him if he was looking for a business, an apartment building, etc.—maybe that would ring a bell.

“Well, it’s none of your business but I’m looking for a bookstore.”

Hey buddy, I’m just trying to help! I didn’t like the tone of his voice and the fact he was annoyed with me for not being a human GPS.

But I knew the bookstore he was looking for.

“Oh, I see,” I replied candidly. “Well, it’s easy. It’s right past the gay district.”

As soon as I said “gay”, the parents gasped and almost covered her kids’ ears.

“You can’t get lost,” I continued. “It’s a colourful neighborhood, very friendly, lots of bars and restaurants. You will notice the gay flags… you know, the rainbow? Well, your bookstore is right at the edge of the neighborhood. And if you can’t find it, ask around! Locals will be glad to help.”

What? It was true! It’s not my fault if this religious bookstore borders Nantes’ gay district! The look on the family’s face was priceless. I’m pretty sure they never made it to the bookstore, though.

It’s tourist season in Ottawa as well, and there are a lot of Latinos, Asians and Europeans downtown Ottawa. The other day, I stopped to offer directions to a couple who seemed lost. I didn’t know where they were from, so I spoke English.

“Can I help you find anything?” I asked.

They both looked at me without saying a word.

I smiled. They didn’t smile back. I smiled again and walked away.

“I’m not going to trust a stranger!” I heard the woman say in Parisian French as soon as I left.

“Ah non!” the husband agreed. “You can’t trust people like that. She probably wanted to sell us something. Well, too bad for her!”

French tourists are hopeless.

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