At a loss for luggage and words

When an American couple's bags went missing after a flight to France, the education in cultural differences began.

The challenges of communicating across language and culture can prove quite formidable.

My wife, Kathy, and I were reminded of this when my cousins arrived in Marseille from Norfolk, Va., for a week's visit. They were three hours late and without luggage. After nearly 20 hours en route and an all-night flight, they handled their predicament with grace – but perhaps a bit too much speed of tongue for Air France's baggage managers.

In English, they described their lost luggage and called twice the next day, trying politely to encourage the airlines to expand the cryptic message – "tracing continues" – on its lost luggage website. No success.

Finally, 40 hours later, my cousin Steve asked for an Air France supervisor. Could the airlines possibly list the contents of their bags on its lost-luggage website, he asked, repeating a request he had made three previous times in conversations with the airline's baggage department. Then, once again he patiently described the bags down to the frayed ribbon tied on one.

This time, within minutes, the website was alerting baggage handlers worldwide to look for Steve's "knickers" and Hazel's "music stamp."

Progress, certainement. But we weren't sure the note would help someone who stumbled across either Steve's two pairs of sneakers or his wife's music stand. The lost luggage handlers appeared to be just that.

After three months' immersion in French culture, I stifled a smile. My cousins seemed trapped in the strange dance of pride and language that on occasion can botch the most basic exchanges between cultures. I even felt a certain sympathy for the Air France agent's logic: Is it not better to write "music stamp" than to confess that I don't know this thing he talks about? And why can't these Americans learn to speak French, anyway?

So when Steve allowed me to call Air France corporate headquarters, I tried a bit of bumbling charm.

"Je suis désolé à vous déranger," I began, apologizing for disturbing the airline's corporate communications office and – I hoped – demonstrating enough bad French to gain sympathy points.

Marie in corporate called back to assure me that Air France's tracking system was quite faible – or so I thought.

"It's weak?" I asked, flipping through the few pages in my mind's highly abridged French dictionary.

As I began to agree, she saved me considerable embarrassment. "Mais non, not faible, fia-ble, reli, relia...."

"Reliable?" I asked.

"Yes, very reliable."

Marie stumbled again as I slowly read the luggage tracking number in English. Her English, it seemed, rivaled my French.

Nonetheless, she assured me that Air France would scour Washington Dulles Airport, where Steve and Hazel had caught a connecting flight. It was progress.

"The French are awfully proud of their language and can't quite fathom why the rest of the world isn't, too," I explained after hanging up. But Steve and Hazel needed no explanation. They aren't the types to huff and puff about why an international airline such as Air France wouldn't demand that their corporate employees speak English.

I was relieved. Try to use French, we had found, and the French nearly always show patience and grace. Speak only English and the curtain drops – even though it's tough to master a tongue in which the single verb faire, "to do or make," is used in 27,116 different constructions (give or take a few).

On Day 4, we headed to the Lubéron Mountains and, after a two-hour lunch, had all but forgotten about the luggage by the time we returned.

No phone messages. But Hazel checked the website once more to be sure.

"Bags at airport" had replaced "tracing continues."

Steve called.

"The bags will be delivered to your apartment," the agent assured him. "They will call in advance."

But what about the four times we asked that they be kept at the airport? Steve was too polite to ask.

By 8:30 p.m. it was getting dark, and the phone hadn't rung. "They'll never find this place at night," I told Hazel.

She called, then handed me to agent Anna. "Are the bags actually on the van?" I asked her.

It appeared not. Then Anna offered a piece of unsolicited advice: "We have 200 lost bags in Marseille," she said, "and the delivery service has 24 hours to get them to you. If I were you, I would come to the airport."

I thought of ordering Anna a Croix de Guerre medal for bravery and honesty in the face of confusion. Instead, we picked up the bags.

"To learn another language is to gain another soul," our French teacher here had told me on the last day of class.

I'm afraid my language skills still leave me wanting in the soul-acquisition department. French, as a language, can be quite complicated to sort out.

I wonder: Can the same be said of the French soul?

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