You can never have enough words at your disposal (That’s probably why Shakespeare made up so many of them).
My Mom is always quick to note this when she says to me, “Isaac, you really need to improve your vocabulary.”
Vocabulary is the bank that is either your best friend or your evil enemy.
You can either walk up to the ATM excited to see the paycheck promptly arriving in your checking account, or stare in confusion to find there is nothing left and your weekly check has just been bounced.
As a writer, your hope is that the bank will always be there to back you up whenever you need to take something out at the last-minute or you’re in desperate need to change the feeling of your piece with a strong word or two.
One word can be the difference between a marvelous piece of a work and an astonishing piece of work (shout out to the bank for saving me on that one).
Words have been and always will be our greatest weapon.
But what if your words suddenly become meaningless?
What if the one weapon you strive to exercise in almost every situation becomes as useful as your pinkie toe? Then what?
That’s what I discovered this weekend as my friends and I took our talents to Paris, where “bonjour” and “merci” became our best friends and truthfully the only form of communication between our world and the French one.
Paris is a stunning city that makes your mouth drop as you walk down the streets and gaze over many of man’s most elaborate and revered works of art.
The pure size of the Eiffel Tower still haunts me, and the facade inside Notre Dame still leaves me breathless.
The Greek sculptures inside the Louvre are still engraved in my dreams.
And the smell of French baguettes and fresh cheese still makes my stomach crave for more even though I already ingested enough carbs to last two lifetimes.
But amidst all of our journeys through the real City of Love, there was one part of our weekend that kept me guessing: discourse.
My communication skills were put to the test and my go-to reliever, my words, had officially become useless.
Even at Starbucks, where I thought it was a universal safe zone for the phrase, “Grande coffee with room for milk,” was a foreign concept to the baristas.
It was as if everything I had been taught, to expand, elaborate, and digress, was shrunken down to almost nothing.
“Hey how’s it going” became, “Hi, merci?”
“Can I get a Grande coffee” became, “Americano, merci?”
“How do you get to the famous big arch?” became “Arch, merci?”
To say it was easy would be a lie, because it was arguably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
Simplify? Is this a French joke?
I’m trying to make my living off of this and you’re going to shut me down and end the damn match before it even started?
“Yes, or else,” Napoleon shouted down to me.
As I was struggling to adjust to my predicament, I began to take in everything French culture was throwing at me.
Although I couldn’t read any of the painting descriptions inside the Louvre, it became apparent that I didn’t need to know everything to appreciate what was staring me in the face.
The Mona Lisa doesn’t need a description to justify her beauty.
Venus De Milo doesn’t need to speak to you to show the transcendence of her curvature.
The Code of Hammurabi doesn’t need English translation for one to understand its significance in law and order.
And of course, a “Royale with Cheese” doesn’t need an English “to-go” box to taste like a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
I’ll let Jules and Vincent digress:
But it wasn’t until we went out to dinner Saturday night that I was knocked into the right frame of mind.
As I was ordering my meal, I spoke to the French waitress as if she was my best friend taking my order at Chipotle. I didn’t think to simplify my discourse and adjust to a different culture.
After five minutes of back and forth candor in multiple languages, the waitress said to me in her strong French vernacular, “you have a very strong accent.”
And that’s when it hit me.
All of my life I have been the insider who decides who can and cannot enter my world.
But for the first time, I was the outsider asking to be let in to someone else’s world.
I was the one who didn’t understand the conversations on the subway or why the little boy was crying to his parents.
I was the one with the “very strong accent.”
My weekend in Paris was a wake up call.
Although we may live in completely different cultures and speak completely different languages, our best asset may not be our verbal skills, but actually our non-verbal skills.
On Sunday morning, my friends and I walked through a market where we saw French culture at its finest. The sights, sounds, and smells of the French people enjoying their lives was a reminder that we all share the same hopes and dreams no matter what discourse we choose to let out of our mouths.
Nothing quite exemplified our universal bond then when we accidentally walked past the Charlie Hebdo office, where twelve people were tragically killed during a terrorist attack on Jan. 11.
As we stood by the memorial in silence, people from all different walks of life gathered to pay their respects and mourn the victims.
Je suis Charlie means, “I am Charlie.”
Although we are not French, we are humans. We may not speak the same language, but we have the same feelings towards good and evil.
It was a powerful moment that I will always remember and be thankful to have witnessed because it showed me just how strong the human spirit can rise up in times of need and struggle.
Paris was an amazing city and it treated me far better than I deserved.
Ultimately, my weekend in the City of Love taught me a lesson I could not have learned otherwise.
Our discourse, no matter how strong or weak or complex or simple it may be, is no match for our nonverbal communication.
So the next time someone asks me what I’d like to order for dinner, I will stop, think, and simplify my language so that one dialect does not bar another one from enjoying each others company.
And of course, I’ll end my order with “merci” and a gigantic smile on my face, because isn’t that universal?