I Learned a Secret Language in Paris

There’s an unspoken language shared by some Parisians that I became aware of during my recent travels there.

In fact, I became fluent in this secret language.

Although that isn’t really saying much about me or my ability to learn languages.

Even though I studied French in junior high and high school and briefly again in college, the little Spanish and even… littler… Italian that I’ve been picking up along my travels in recent years led me in Paris to confusingly mishmash the romance languages into one incoherent jumble.

The first thing I said to a barista in Paris was, “Bonjour, un café, por favor,” which I did not even notice until the barista laughed out loud and replied, “D’accord, amigo!”

Then I would try to tell people it was a beautiful day when it was a beautiful day because beautiful days deserve to be called by name by saying something like, “Aujourd’hui, c’est… bellisimo… non?”

And instead of asking someone how they were doing with a typical “Comme ça va?” in French, I would blend my Itali’Spanish instead and say, “Bonjourno, que tal?”

Thankfully, the unspoken language shared by Parisians — specifically, Parisians who use the city’s primary bike share program, called Velib’ — was much easier for me to master.

The language only contained one word, and while it was something of an umbrella term used to indicate many possibilities, it was enough to communicate with dozens or even hundreds of people every day.

Communicating this one unspoken gesture would save strangers time and frustration and possibly even from harm.

The one “word” of this unspoken language?

It was simple:

When a bike at a station had some sort of problem — a busted break, a flat tire, if its gears wouldn’t shift or if it simply wouldn’t unlock using its keypad system — someone would unhinge the bicycle’s adjustable seat, spin the seat around 180 degrees into a “backwards” position, and lock the seat back in place.

The unspoken language spoken by these Parisians was as simple as indicating that a bike wasn’t working right so others could avoid it and find one that did.

This is precisely the kind of language that I have no problem mastering!

It took me a couple days, nevertheless, to notice this unspoken language — what with it being unspoken and all. No one told me about it outright so as my days rolled on in Paris (and after I extended my travels there by a whole week because I fell in love with Paris and loved how I felt there and wanted to give myself more of that feeling), I noticed the backwards seats and knew it had to be deliberate.

This was language that I was witnessing, I told myself.

What I appreciate about something as simple as this unspoken language shared by Parisian bike riders was that there was no obligation to it.

It helped other bike riders and in fact probably also helped the bike share company and its many workers who you would see racing around the city at all hours to rearrange bikes due to popular demand or to collect those that needed repairs. The unspoken language must have, I figured, helped these workers to locate the problem bikes faster and thus to do their jobs more easily.

Between bike riders, this unspoken language was a social agreement made and maintained based on good will and good karma; based on a sentiment of, “I’ve learned something so now you don’t have to.”

It is much like the unspoken language of making eye contact with passers-by on the street and giving them a nod or a light smile as if to say, I see you there.

While it’s fine to not share in this language — after all, there is no obligation to do it — everything feels better after having made the small effort. You become a part of a social agreement based on good will and good karma. It could even change someone’s day. I’ve always maintained that a smile at a stranger on the street really could change a whole life.

As I walked through Paris’s many streets and picked up bikes from many stations and returned them to stations elsewhere, I found myself looking for and counting the number of backwards bicycle seats.

I didn’t care so much about how many bikes were busted and in need of repairs.

I liked to count how many people were speaking the same unspoken language.

Backwards bicycle seats in Paris also reminded me that no matter where you are in the world — that even in small, passing, unspoken ways — people are willing to communicate that they care.

Until next time,

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