And other international incidents
By Beth MacDonald
When I was in high school I took French classes, envisioning a day when I would travel to Paris to chicly order Champagne and shop like a native. Unfortunately, I never think to lower my daydream expectations to allow for my real-life blunders.
I moved to Italy in my late 20s, and I needed to quickly learn the language in order to communicate for my job. I became fluent enough to manage around my Italian counterparts, order food and, of course, shop. I also managed to bungle the accents on enough words to offend the man at the gas station when asking for a pen to sign my NATO ration coupons. After four years I found out it was not a writing implement that I had been requesting. Oops. A friend of mine, far more conversant than I, began laughing to the point of tears when I repeated the phrase I had been using for so long. After a few minutes she calmed down enough to tell me what I had asked for was much more personal to a man than a pen, but very close in spelling. I started going to a different gas station.
When I finally made it to France as a tourist, I could only recognize two words: cigarette and pastry. I didn’t smoke, so the fact that “cigarette” is the same in just about any language did me no good. I tried to order water at a patisserie, asking for water, aqua, agua, eau (leaving butchered accents and articles strewn at the side of the road) and even tried a very determined — and exasperated — index finger pointing at the bottle of water I wanted. The lady at the counter refused to do anything but stare at me with a flat look on her face. The French built the Eiffel Tower is less time than it was taking me to get a sip of water. I could have shriveled up and died if it weren’t for a stranger stepping in to order for me.
A few years ago, I went to Greece for a few weeks. I made it a goal to gain some rudimentary knowledge regarding the lay of the land as well as learn a few greetings and courtesies. I bought books, I went online, and ultimately came to the conclusion that Greek is not easy and Google Translate hates me.
My husband is fluent in odd languages no one ever thinks about, like Tongan. He is much better at fitting in abroad. If he’s not good at something new, he’s confident, and that certainly goes a long way. He’ll say a word that doesn’t mean what he thinks it means, and people respond anyway. I can accurately give voice to an accent, but I have trouble remembering the words.
While in Greece, he was trying to help me (bless his heart) by giving me mnemonics to help me remember what I was supposed to say. Maybe it is our years of marriage that render anything he says immediately unheard, or perhaps it was because I’m a mom and everything in my brain gets scrambled and re-filed under, “Where are your shoes? Yes, you have to wear shoes.”
Either way, I forgot everything he told me right when I needed it most. I walked around trying to thank people by saying, with my very good accent, “Ikilledyourcat-a,” all the time smiling and bowing like a blonde Norwegian Sumo wrestler. I followed this by incorporating an odd hand gesture that made me look like the Pope conferring blessings upon all.
The people of Greece are lovely people, even if we’ve all grown weary of learning their alphabet. They are kind, and smiles are universal. After some time in Athens, I took to interpretive dance as my primary way of communicating — I might be a YouTube star in Europe to this day. Omicron aside, Greek is an amazing, beautiful language. If you mess up a word, not to worry, you haven’t said anything meaningful at all, just random gibberish. It’s not like other languages where you screw up and accidentally offend someone.
To be honest, I would still give my experience speaking Greek a five-star Yelp review just for the exercise I got ordering gyros by flailing my arms. PS
Beth MacDonald is a Southern Pines suburban misadventurer with an earthy vocabulary who relies heavily on spellcheck. She loves to travel with her family, read everything she can, and shop locally for her socks.