Je Ne Parle Pas Français

Train dispatches from Nice: How to travel when you don’t speak the language


Je ne parle pas français is the only French I know and it means “I don’t speak French.” Helpful, right? It wasn’t helpful when I was attempting to travel back to Monaco after a day spent in Nice, France.

Some quick words of wisdom when traveling by train:

  1. When provided options, always pick green; it generally means good things.
  2. Pay attention to your surroundings and follow people who look like they know where they’re going.
  3. Be aware of pickpockets.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in English. Speak simply and slowly.
  5. Stay calm and don’t look nervous; pickpockets know to target confused tourists.

So, I want to buy a train ticket from Nice back to Monaco. I walk up to the train station in Nice, hoping the ticketing agents speak English.

They don’t.

Instead, I scrounge in my bag for the French-English dictionary I have, but I can’t find it. Perfect!

So I attempt to recall those three weeks of Italian I supposedly learned in Rome during college and realize that the French word for “ticket” (billet) is very similar to the Italian word for “ticket” or “biglietto.”

Score! I see the ticket machine or “billetterie,” but there’s about ten of them in different colors and it looks like each color is a different rail line.

I vaguely remember the SNCF (France’s national railway company) route colors I saw in the train station in Monaco so I pick the same SNCF colors on the billetterie in front of the Nice train station and hope I'm not hopping a train to Russia accidentally.

I pray for an English translation button on the machine.

There isn’t one.

Instead, I see a big green button in the center of the machine with a bunch of words around it and think, “Well, green means go, so let’s press it.”

It works! Finally something good!

Then a screen with a bunch of numbers pop up: 0-14, 15-25, adulte 26-54, and 55+. Does this mean I want to leave in the next 0-14 minutes? Or the next 15-25 minutes? Ummm….. No! I bet “Adulte” is is asking for my age.

Click on the 15-25 option.

Yes! Cheaper tickets!

Okay next is “destination” which, thankfully, is the same word in French as it is in English. Easy. Pick Monaco and then pick Monte-Carlo (which is my neighborhood).

The next screen shows two options: “simple” or “aller-retour” with a bunch of other French words I can’t decipher. Well, I don’t want to tour anywhere and I think simple means express. Or, maybe it means a one-way ticket. Either way, I’m a simple person, so I’m choosing that one.


On to the next hurdle: It seems like there’s a first-class and coach option for the train and since I’ve never ridden first-class for anything in my life. I tap the “seconde classe” option.

I can’t even decipher what the next screen is asking. There are only three options, so I pick the one in green because green seems to be a good thing.

Finally, it asks for 3 Euro for the ticket, which isn’t bad but it’s still expensive for a 15 minute train ride, I think.

The tickets print, and I feel super accomplished but try not to show it. The key is to look like I know what I’m doing so I don’t get taken advantage of in big cities like Nice. Also, because I’m a blonde (so foreign!) female traveling alone, I have to be extra careful. Generally, the Cote d’Azur is very safe, but around major port cities like Nice and in major transportation centers like this bus/train station I was in, there were some parts that felt a lot like Penn Station in NYC, if you know what I mean.

I wait in the sitting area where I can watch the monitor to see which track the train will arrive in. Luckily, I see another woman dressed impeccably well, so I assume she’s also heading to Monaco (Monacan woman are known for their rich fashion sense). As soon as the Monaco destination is highlighted on the TV, signaling the train was pulling in, the woman pops up and starts walking. Guess I assumed correctly! I follow her closely to make sure I'm going to the right track (and luckily I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have figured out that track C was underneath all the others in this underground green tunnel).


I made it home with my sparse knowledge of French and Italian. And, after all of that fighting with the ticket machine, nobody on the train even checked my ticket.