I wearily found my way to an aisle seat on the plane about to take off from Santa Barbara, Calif., the second to last leg of my recent whirlwind trip. However, I wasn't too tired for one of my favorite pastimes: people watching.

A young man of about 21 sat down directly across from me, a book in his hand. I just had to find out what he was reading. Mon dieu, quelle bonne surprise. (My goodness, what a nice surprise.) It was a book of old French short stories, "Contes Populaires" ("Popular Stories"). Seeing him holding that book, written in my favorite language, I felt a second wind start to kick in.

Without saying a word, I pointed out to him a copy of "Nous Deux," the magazine I was carrying. He smiled and we started to speak in French. Our conversation continued until the plane touched down in Phoenix, about an hour and a half later. And what a fun conversation it was. The age difference melted away, as two people connected through that wonderful stepping stone of a common interest.

Turns out Chris, a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara has a double major: economics and French. He has big plans - secure a position in accounting with an American firm that has branches in Europe. It would be a total win-win situation. He'd get to work as an accountant in a French-speaking country without having to go through the hassle of getting a work permit, etc. The American company would be lucky to find a candidate with his credentials in both fields.

Chris showed me his French book, borrowed from the UCSB library for use on a research paper. "Look," he exclaimed. "This is the first time someone has checked out this book in 10 years." Our conclusion was the same: Apparently those contes weren't so populaires after all!

Just before we touched down in Phoenix, I took off the "Hermes" scarf I was wearing - an obvious knockoff of the high-end French couture line. It's made of a shiny polyester with edges rolled by machine, two major tipoffs that it's not an original. Another shared laugh after I showed it to Chris and he deadpanned, "Je ne l'aurais jamais su." ("I never would have known.")

At the airport, we shook hands and exchanged the usual great-to-meet-yous. Chris said maybe we'd run into each other sometime at a French café in Santa Barbara. English translation: I'll never see him again. Even so, that chance encounter of the French kind was one of the highlights of my trip.

As I waited out a flight delay in the Phoenix airport, it occurred to me that it doesn't matter which foreign language you speak and not even how fluently you speak it. Learning a foreign language opens doors to many interesting things, but especially to people.

I have discovered this with my limited knowledge of Spanish, which I took for only one year, as a senior in college. For some reason my speaking skills in Spanish are better than my auditory ones. I can still pronounce quite a few phrases, spoken with a French/American accent I'm sure.

Knowing a little Spanish, I had the courage to separate from my tour group in Spain for a few hours several times and go off on my own. There were no worries - I could ask for directions, order something to eat and exchange a few pleasantries en español.

There's really nothing like speaking to people in their own language to give one the feeling that the world is not such a big place after all.

Barbara Russek welcomes comments at Babette2@comcast.net