The following is an unedited transcript for Season 1, Episode 6 of my podcast, Written, Spoken, provided to help all of my readers and listeners — especially those with hearing disabilities or for whom English is not a primary language — access and enjoy the content of each and every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or other platforms here.
The Secret Language of Paris
[00:00:02] Hey there. Welcome back to Written, Spoken. My name is Dave Ursillo and I’m the host of this show.
[00:00:08] Season 1 of Written, Spoken brings to life 10 recent personal narrative essays and human interest stories from my recent newsletters, which I share every other week with a few thousand of my readers. If you’re new here you should probably go back and have a listen from the first episode to learn about what this podcast is, and who I am, and why it is that we’re here. Now, not every one of these episodes ties into the next. In other words, you can jump in at any time, really. But this set of 10 stories and essays revolves around similar themes of exploration — in particular from the last year or so of my creative professional and personal life. If you like what you hear, please give us a shout on social media, or share us with a friend, or leave a helpful review on Apple Podcasts to help others find us. In this episode, you’ll learn about a secret language that I discovered in Paris during my recent travels there. Ready to hear more? Okay. Let’s get on with the episode.
[00:01:08] Dear friend. There’s an unspoken language shared by some Parisians that I became aware of during my recent travels. In fact, I became fluent in this secret language — although that really isn’t saying much about me, or my ability to learn languages. Even though I studied French in junior high school, high school and briefly again in college, a 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.
[00:01:45] In fact, the first thing I said in Paris to a barista at a nearby café was, “Bonjour, un café, por favor?” throwing a little Spanish into my French, which I didn’t even realize until the barista laughed in my face and replied, “Okay, 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 my name — by saying something like, “Au’jourdhui, c’est bellissimo, non?”, this time mashing an Italian into my French. And instead of asking someone how they were doing with a typical “Comme ca va?” in French, I would blend my Itali-Spanish into it instead and say, “Bongiorno, que tal?”.
[00:02:29] 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.
[00:02:40] 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 — let’s say a busted brake or a flat tire, or if its gears wouldn’t shift, or if it simply wouldn’t unlock using its keypad system — someone would unhinge the bicycle is adjustable, seat spin the seat around 180 degrees into a backwards position, and lock the seat back in place.
[00:03:31] The unspoken language spoken by these Parisians was as simple as indicating that a bike wasn’t working right so that others could avoid it and find one that did.
[00:03:40] 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 at 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. I knew it had to be deliberate. This is language that I’m witnessing, I told myself.
[00:04:13] 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 helps the bike share company and its many workers — who you’d see racing around the city at all hours to rearrange bikes due to popular demand or to collect those bikes that needed repairs. So this unspoken language must have, I figured, help these workers locate the problem bikes faster and thus to do their jobs more easily.
[00:04:46] Between bike riders, this unspoken language was a social agreement made and maintained based on goodwill 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.”
[00:05:10] While it’s fine to not share in this language — after all there’s no obligation to it — everything feels better after having made the small effort. You become a part of a social agreement based on goodwill and karma. It could even change someone’s day. I’ve always maintained that a smile on a stranger on the street really could change a whole life.
[00:05:33] 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 how many bikes were busted and in need of repairs. I’d like to count how many people were speaking the same unspoken language.
[00:05:54] 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 always willing to communicate that they care. Yours, Dave.
[00:06:20] OK, that’s all for this week’s episode. And a quick aside in this epilogue, ever since learning of this so-called secret language that I first discovered in Paris, I’ve gone on to witness it being “spoken,” if you will, in other cities and countries too, which is pretty cool. Thank you so much for listening to the show. If you enjoyed this installment of the podcast, don’t forget there are four more episodes remaining in this debut season so make sure you if haven’t already that you subscribe on Apple podcast or Spotify so you never miss a new episode.
[00:06:49] Leaving us a five-star rating and a brief review wherever you listen also goes a long way to helping other listeners find the show, so please consider supporting us in that way. I appreciate you keeping us in mind. And thank you.
[00:07:01] Next week we’ll be breaking down the story behind a two-word phrase that has come to monopolize the world’s definition of the struggle to write. And in my humble opinion, this two-word phrase may be responsible for thwarting countless tens of millions of people the world over from expressing themselves as they desire. The story behind the story of “writer’s block.” That’s coming on the next episode of Written, Spoken.
[00:07:30] Until next time, remember: we’re all the writers of the stories of our lives. I’m Dave Ursillo and this is Written, Spoken. Thanks for listening.