The year is 2002. This is my first trip to a non-English speaking country. I am going to France.
I land at the Toulouse airport via Milan. Upon landing I search for immigration. To my surprise, I cannot find it. Funny! How do I enter the country?
I approach a person who seemed to be wearing a police uniform. I ask him about immigration. He rattles off something in French pointing to doors marked "Sortie".
Hmmm... Sortie. When I was small I was an avid Commando comics fan. RAF used to fly sorties. Why is this person pointing to sortie? And why doesn't he speak English? This is an airport and if he is a policeman, shouldn't he be there to help?
I stare at him for some time trying to catch some words that I read in a French phrase book that I had purchased some days ago. Nothing!
I move away. Traces of panic appear. If I am delayed here, my baggage will be taken off carousal and who knows how to find them. In desperation I look around. There is a young man standing near a desk. All others are moving around. Perhaps, he can help. I go to him. As I walk towards him, I am trying to remember what I learnt in the phrase book.
"Parlez vous anglais?: I stammer out.
"Yeah, a little".
I ask him about the immigration.
He looks at me strangely and says, "collect yous baggage and walk out." and points towards "sortie".
"But if I enter France without an immigration stamp, I will have trouble going back."
"Hmm... How did you come here?" he asks.
"From Bangalore to Bombay via Milan."
"Did they stamp your passport at Milan?"
"Yes they did."
"Then you have nothing to worry. Since we are all part of European Union, you can enter anywhere into Europe."
"Oh I see!"
I thank that person immensely, find out where my luggage could be (it was more than half an hour since I have landed) and exit.
I have since visited many other non-English speaking countries - Germany, Belgium, Switzerland - but that first trip is frozen in my mind.
a) No matter how much information you have about a place or about related events, nothing will prepare you when you reach that place (I knew about the formation of EU.)
b) There is no substitute for local language. Your customers may speak English well, the person on the street will not.
All memories came flooding back when I created this web page on Free Online French Learning Resources. If you are planning to visit France in future, or wish to learn a language that will exercise your brain cells, this is the place to start.