Being questioned by the French

December 23, 2009

Earlier this year I spent five months working in a tourist office in the South of France. Before starting I really wasn’t sure quite what to expect, and was by no means ready for the stream of strange and curious questions which would end up coming my way. Nothing had suggested that the tourist office would turn out to be a general information office or that the majority of ‘tourists’ would, in fact, be local residents.

People seemed to see us as having a variety of functions. A particularly memorable question came during my first week when a middle-aged lady came in to ask where she could buy a canary. Thinking there must be a misunderstanding and blaming my rusty French, I double checked that it was a little yellow bird that she was after. It was. She was not alone in viewing us as a sort of shopping advisor, and weeks later I was asked for the whereabouts of a shop selling wine bottle corks, and one which stocked books on witchcraft.

To other people we were more of a meteorological office. An old man once wanted to know the precise timings of the forecasted rain in order to schedule when his wife could hang out her laundry, and fairly late into spring I was questioned on the closest place with snow.
Numerous occasions saw us being mistaken for a travel agent and being asked to book flights to Madrid or on the best way to get to Ibiza. Another favourite was when a clearly very local couple came and asked whether there was a time difference between where we were, and the north of France. You really never knew what was coming next!

Perhaps people had reason to come in with strange requests. It’s true that along with the town maps you might expect to receive in a tourist office, we could provide maps and guides to any EU capital, to most French ski resorts and to France’s various overseas départements and territories.

It’s worth remembering, and next time you find yourself in France with a tourist office nearby, you really can go in and ask quite literally anything. Helena Hamlyn.