Yesterday, an article was published in L’Indicateur des Flandres – a regional newspaper for the Flanders / Northern France. The headline? Une Texane dans la ville flamande (A Texan in the Flemish city). It wasn’t necessarily an article about me, but more about how I was received in the city of Bailleul, which is in France, right next to the Belgian border.
When I first met Michel, he played in a band called Catsberg, which later became Hoffender. The group was started by his friend Nico, who is also a journalist for this newspaper. Nico reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and asked if I would like to spend the afternoon in Bailleul, testing how the city’s residents act towards tourists. Of course I was in.
The article was published in French, but for all my lovely readers, here is a very rough translation of the whole thing!
A Texan in the Flemish city
We tested the level of English in Bailleul… in stealth mode with the help of an American
I’ve already been told that I have the composure of a Brit. But my English accent being what it is, I would have a hard time passing for a foreigner in Bailleul. Especially in a city in which I’ve been working for ten years. No, I needed a real foreigner to carry out this experiment. With a real accent. That’s when Haley became part of the plan.
The young woman, 26 years old, comes from Dallas, Texas. She’s lived in France for 3 years and teaches in Lille: an ideal profile to test the welcoming of foreigners in Melusine city. Her first target: the Monts des Flandre tourism office. Haley has to speak exclusively in the language of Obama. “Ask what you can visit in the city this weekend,” I tell her. The blonde opens the doors to the tourism office. She comes out five minutes later, a smile on her lips and a few brochures in her hands. “When I started to speak in English, the lady shrugged her shoulders, a little surprised,” says our undercover tourist. “But she quickly took control of the situation and started responding to me in English.” Haley now knows that she can visit the school of lace and the Benoît-de-Puydt museum. “They could’ve recommended more specific things to do or see, but I’ll make do with all of my brochures,” she notes.
We walk to the Benoît-de-Puydt museum. Haley crosses the threshold of the bourgeois house and finds two men, totally unsettled by her speaking English. “Oh! No, no, no…” they let out with a certain fear. Our Texan fakes some bad French. “Les heures, hmm… time,” she says, pointing to her watch. The men are able to execute and tell her the operating times of the museum. “They were super nice; they did everything they could so that I would understand,” says the American.
The café owner wants to drive her to the train station
We continue the journey to the area near City Hall. New mission for Haley: ask how to get to Bailleul’s train station. She heads over to the parasols of a nearby café. The boss doesn’t get flustered – he speaks in French to a Belgian client who speaks English. Haley almost gets caught in her own trap when the owner offers to drive her directly to the station. “We’ll be there in two minutes!” he insists. A little embarrassed, our accomplice finds a way out. “My train is in an hour, I still have a little time,” she lies.
Next, I send Haley to the front desk of the Mayor’s office. Ten minutes later, I see her come out of the building with a lady gesturing how to go somewhere. I hide so they don’t see me. Haley comes over to me, laughing: “It’s so funny to do that! The lady was like ‘oooooh la la’ when I started speaking to her in English. I said ‘train’, she said ‘SNCF’… it was very hard to communicate verbally but she was really nice. It’s not really her job to give directions to a foreigner.”
We finish the experiment in the main square. Haley, still alone, stops passers-by to ask them how to get to the train station. Out of four people, only a high schooler is able to easily express himself in English.
Haley’s assessment is quite positive. “Each time, the people were nice. Everyone helped me. At the tourism office, the level of English wasn’t amazing, but I still got the information I needed.”
-Nicolas de Ruyffelaere
Thanks for including me in this experiment, Nico! It was so fun to play the role of “innocent American tourist who speaks no French”. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to do that, so I must say I enjoyed it.
Michel and I went to the market in Bailleul last night and one of the farmers we like to buy from recognized me.”Didn’t I see you in the newspaper today…? Ah yes, the Texan!”