On my first French exchange aged twelve the family asked me what food I liked. I got my vocab muddled and was presented with a tray of unidentifiable shellfish, sea demons and other slimy monsters which I didn’t even know the names of in English, let alone French.
One guest didn’t like seafood so ‘Maman’ piled Loch Ness’s cousins on my plate. ‘Et voila…!’ Another guest was allergic to shellfish, and the pile of coastal creatures grew higher. Too shy to explain the muddle I adopted the traditional British stiff upper lip approach and got stuck in. And I liked it. The experience converted me to more unusual tastes and I returned home to my parents at Leeds Bradford airport demanding oysters.
A surprise blind date
Many years later arriving in Paris as a student I struck up conversation with a group of fellow juveniles at the bar. With the exception of one loser I got on really well with all of them and with one girl in particular. She ticked off three criteria on my Brit chick settling in to Paris list – party going partner in crime, shopping companion and language partner. We all exchanged numbers and the next day I bit the bullet and suggested meeting my BFF to be for coffee.
She agreed but suggested drinks instead. Only when I arrived I spotted Monsieur Loser. I had got the numbers muddled, and failed to spot the telltale lack of feminine adjective endings in his texts. Just as I was about to make an excuse to leave (and brush up on my French grammar) he dangled a champagne flute in front of me. It was really good Champagne. The glutton in me said one drink wouldn’t harm. It turned out it was his birthday and he was ‘so ‘appy not to be all alone’. M. Loser turned out to be really fun in reality (perhaps M Bollinger helped) and we stayed in contact as friends.
‘Oh, yes I forgot your wife was dead’
Sometimes the outcome was less rosy however. Back in 2010, in a particularly anti British area of Damascus I smiled as a man explained he had lost his wife. I somehow mistook the euphemism for death, thinking she’d gone off designer shopping. Minutes later and still blushing from my faux pas I did it again. ‘Oh, yes I forgot she’s dead’ I added, laughing nervously. My basic Arabic did not include sensitivities related to death and I chose a different district for my future grocery shopping.
I sound like a pornstar
Most people are understanding. Many think my mix ups are cute, endearing. ‘Please may I rob you of your condiments?’ I apparently asked one fellow diner in Munich, much to the table’s amusement.
I asked for a disposable camera as a ‘a photo device which I can throw away immediately’, and got it for free. A former Parisian colleague reckons I sound like a pornstar in French. I was worried but she assured me,’oh mais non, a high end, classy pornstar…’.
Pardon my expatlish
I find foreign accents attractive. No doubt the Mediterranean drawl adds to the allure of my hispanic other half. And after all these years I understand that when he says I’m being ‘sensible’ he means ‘sensitive’, when he says he is preoccupied, he is worried and if he’s constipated he’s actually got a cold (at least I hope we are not at a stage in our relationship where we share EVERYTHING).
Sometimes I wish I could just be myself in all languages. Isn’t it frustrating when people reckon you’re shy, stupid or arrogant when actually you’re just in a muddle?
So if I’m not speaking my mother tongue and I congratulate you on your partner’s death, please cut me some slack and pardon my French.
If you’re learning a foreign language, you might like to check out these tips from the experts.