You are walking in Paris, half hoping that it will cloud up and give you a chance to walk in the rain. That’s what you’re supposed to do in Paris, especially as midnight. Or you are ambling around a small village on the way to Normandy, hoping to try out your French on some unsuspecting native.
Be careful what you wish for, mon ami. You may end up with your tongue twisted around your molars as you play the suave traveller. It’s happened to me—in France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and New York (all right, NYC only seems like a foreign country).
For some reason I feel compelled to study the language of every country I visit. After all, I think, I studied Latin for 5 years and college French for two years. If anybody is groomed for travel, t’s I.
So far the only positive result is that the haughty French laugh at me instead of giving me the Yankee-Go-Home glare. Some of my attempts to interact with the natives have been disastrously funny (in retrospect, of course).
In Isigny, a small French village, I spotted a Wire Haired Pointing Griffon, which is a breed of hunting dog. I approached the owner and inquired in perfect French as to whether the canine was in fact what I thought, a WHPG (also known as a Korthals griffon). “Oui,” said the owner, and I could tell he and his wife were impressed not only with my knowledge of dogs but also of their language.
What happened next was fit for a Three Stooges skit, except that I played all three stooges — Curly, Moe, and Larry. Encouraged by my initial success, I then asked the gentleman whether his dog lived in the house. His answer was a shocked NON, and he and his wife stalked off, with the dog looking back at me wistfully. He understood what I meant and liked the idea.
Only later did I figure out that I had asked the French couple whether their pet went to the bathroom in the house. My mind has blanked out what French words I actually used, and perhaps that’s just as well. Always eager to look on the bright side, I am convinced that at least the dog and I were on the same page. Dogs and I speak the same language.
Or take the time I was in Paris. Not only did I lose track of my wife, but I couldn’t find my way back to our hotel. Not in the least intimidated, I stopped a dapper looking gentleman wearing a blue blazer and carrying and umbrella. (In light of what occurred, I wonder if the umbrella was a tipoff that he was really an Englishman).
“Si vous plaît, monsieur, ou est l’Hôtel Sofitel?” I was rewarded with a gesture toward a side street and instructions that I would find my hotel two blocks down that street. Encouraged, I decided to continue the conversation by telling him that I had lost my wife.
“Ma femme est perdue,” I said. The only reply was a shocked “Non,” and my newfound friend turned and disappeared into the crowd. To this day I wonder if what sent him scurrying away was my French or the smile on my face at the thought that my beloved was missing. Later I learned from my daughter Carolyn, a French teacher, that I may have suggested to the poor guy that my wife was drifting away, losing it, or even mentally gone. No wonder the poor fellow didn’t want to get involved.
So much for the French. I don’t like French fries anyway.
Not discouraged, I bought several Spanish language books in preparation for a stay in San Miguel de Allende. Located in the central highlands of Mexico, this historic town was founded in the 1500s and has preserved its early architectural heritage. Its historic beauty has made it a paradise for artists and writers.
Of course I managed to get lost in SMA. Once again I confidently pulled out a language book and proceeded to ask for directions to where I was staying. This time all I got was a puzzled stare from the people at the bus stop. I later realized that I was using the word hablo or habla (speak) as the Spanish word for the English have. I think I told them that I speak autobus.
Rome was a different story — well, almost. I did my due diligence with an Italian phrasebook and I was confident could get by with their language. At a restaurant where I had lunch, I spotted several Italian soldiers sitting together. I walked over to their table and thanked them for fighting alongside our troops in Iraq. Whether the poor fellows understood me or not, I do not know, but at least they didn’t go for their pistols.
The next day I read in the English language Herald Tribune that Italy was pulling its combat troops out of Iraq. I wish I had looked closer at the badges of rank at that table. Could I have offended a top general in the Italian army? Or did they look at me and decide the war was a losing cause?
It was a long time before I ate spaghetti again.
I am not giving up. If one of the delights of travel is seeing, feeling, and tasting different cultures and expanding your understanding of the world, then attempting to speak the language of the countries you visit enhances the enjoyment.
Go ahead, make a fool of yourself.
It’s worth it. I speak from experience.