Why you should care
Because silence isn’t golden when it isolates us from connecting to one another.
Shannon Reed is a writer and professor in Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.
I like to blend in when I travel. But in Paris last spring, I couldn’t. The problem wasn’t my rudimentary French, nor Parisian hauteur, but my hearing impairment, which has steadily worsened over the past 20 years. For the first time in my solo travels, I had to take a deep breath, and ask for strangers’ help.
When I arrived in April, I was looking forward to long walks, an expedition to buy fabric and visiting my favorite patisseries to see if their macarons were still up to snuff.
My first night in the city, I walked to the Marais, where I remembered eating a plate of frites so crisp and salty, I daydreamed about them for years. I ducked into a familiar-looking café, where I was met by a waiter with a grim expression. He spoke so rapidly that I blurted out, “I’m sorry, do you speak English?” in my broken French. With a slight hitch to his eyebrow, he responded in English. Or at least I think he did. I couldn’t hear him.
I’m in my early 40s and nothing about me reads “disabled,” unless you happen to peer into my ears and see my hearing aids.
Because I read lips, it takes me a couple of sentences, sometimes more, to pick up on how a person speaks; I have to learn their voice, their lips, the way they hold or avoid eye contact. Thus, my daily interactions can be trying. And it doesn’t help that I’m in my early 40s and nothing about me reads “disabled,” unless you happen to peer into my ears and see my hearing aids.
I asked the waiter to repeat himself. He spoke louder, almost shouting. I tried to explain that the problem was mine, not his, a mollifying technique that sometimes works. Not this time. He pointed to the exit. It was a rainy April night, and I found myself back on the sidewalk, where I ended up buying two crepes from a street vendor. Back in my room, I cried over them.
I should have tried again the next morning, but instead I purchased breakfast at a department store where I could check out on my own. I spent the morning at the Louvre, talking to no one. Lunch was procured by pointing and scowling at a McDonald’s. Rather than learning from my waiter-tormentor, I had become him.
Just before 5 p.m., I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens, where the orderly lines of hydrangea blossoms calmed me. So too did the streams of Parisians flocking to the park. As I watched them tap on their smartphones or help their children sail toy boats, I realized that I had judged an entire city of people on one man’s thoughtlessness.
Walking back to my hotel, I noticed a pizza stand with delicious-looking pies. Carefully, I began to pick out the sentence in French: “Could I please have two slices —”
The man behind the counter interrupted me. “Deux?” He held up two fingers. I nodded, feeling my confidence slipping away.
An older woman next to him looked at me. “American?” she asked. I nodded.
She turned to the man and poked him in the back. “Practice,” I thought she said. He looked at her and then at me, and I recognized the supplication in his face. He leaned on the counter, met my gaze and said something that sounded like: “May I ask you questions in English?”
“I’m sorry, can you say that again? It’s me, not you. I have bad hearing.”
A pause. Then, the woman: “I think it is a little him too!” We all laughed.
I said to him, “You’re learning English?”
“Yes, you speak French?”
“Not really,” I told him, the truth.
“Me not with English neither,” he told me, the truth.
The pizza was good. The chat was better. As I walked home, I was reminded that the French put a single olive on plain pizza, which is gross. And that people everywhere can be jerks. Maybe that waiter in the Marais was having a bad night or was embarrassed by his terrible American accent. But he had reacted in fear, and, in turn, touched on my big fear — that I will be left out because I cannot hear well. I let him shut me down, until the people in the pizza shop reminded me that we are all imperfect, but if we keep trying to listen, we will almost always connect.
For the rest of my visit, I did my best to reach out, even if I had to ask people to repeat themselves. I asked the man making crepes what his favorite flavor was. I asked the woman at Versailles to suggest how to see everything in the gardens. I’m not exactly sure what either of them said, but they both smiled. I asked the old lady at the shop where I bought postcards where she liked to have lunch, and found myself at a diner called Breakfast in America. As I walked in, the waitress called, “Bonjour!”
“Good morning,” I called back without thinking.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. “Good morning!”
“Don’t be sorry,” I told her. “I’m the one who should speak French!”
She brought me a menu. “As long as we understand each other, no?”