Chatting in English

This shop clerk might flee if we speak English to her.

Conversations go in funny ways when in a foreign land. That is normal when I attempt French, but even more so when I give up and stick to English. It marks me as an outsider, thus casting my conversational partners into the role of cultural interpreters. No one seems to mind this.

At a designer discount shop yesterday,  a clerk greeted me in German (I guess I don’t look French), to which I smiled warmly and said, “I don’t have the first clue what you just said.”  That may come across phonetically in strange ways, but so far, everyone responds in a friendly manner, so I’m pretty sure it does not sound to German ears as  “Hand over all your money.”

More than once it has sent clerks fleeing out of the store, after hastily explaining in French or German they’re going to retrieve someone fluent in English.

It is awkward when I dart into a shop for a quick peek with no real intentions of committing to a retail relationship lasting longer than a minute, and suddenly find myself  managing the store by default, because I am the only one left. It gets worse when new customers come in and ask me questions, as though I would know the answer in any language. They might be saying, “What is your return policy?” but all I hear is “Achtung scweizzergesselschaftundlannder!”  They’re probably puzzled to find a uni-lingual shop clerk in the middle of a famously multilingual country. That is not my problem.

And then there’s the weird feeling of being taken seriously as a shopper, when I am merely a browser. I can’t seem to find a way to prevent this misapprehension on the part of the shop clerks, so I just wait for the staff to return, who sometimes come back with the store owner who was having lunch in the cafe next door.

I’m actually getting the impression that this is what store owners do – eat. They are always nearby and always seeming to have more fun than their staff.

Maybe this is the staff’s way of getting back at their bosses – by forcing them to work.

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