The Displaced Nation

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WORLD OF WORDS: Oh, those faux pas! Those you commit, and others that are committed upon you, during your travels abroad

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr’s first book, Gap Year Girl, about an adult gap year she took with her husband, came out last September with She Writes Press. Here she recounts some amusing faux pas from their travels, and owns up to one of her own (from her first time in France).

In the world of words, language is a subtle art. So what happens when non-native speakers miss out on linguistic subtleties? To what extent does it rock the native speaker’s world?

Over the course of 12 months backpacking across Europe on an adult gap year with my husband in 2012, we were frequently amused by the quirky use of English we encountered. Indeed, while we would never want to discourage non-native speakers from giving English a try, hearing translations of our mother tongue that weren’t quite right was, more often than not, a source of entertainment.

And sometimes the results of such attempts were downright, flat-out, laugh-out-loud funny.

I’ll elaborate on those examples—that’s after I own up to one of my own French faux pas.

Pas de tout or pas tout? There’s a difference?!!

The delicate nature of language was highlighted for me when teaching a middle school French class a couple of weeks ago. I asked one of my best students if she understood the lesson we’d just completed on the formation of the passé composé. She looked at me guardedly and replied with a crooked smile, “Pas de tout.”

I was deflated. Crushed. One of my stars had freely admitted she’d understood nothing at all of my lecture. How could that be? Was my explication really that obtuse?

Vous comprenhez Pas de tout

Photo credits: Studying French at home and in Paris, by Modern Languages @ Finger Lakes Community College, by The LEAF Project via Flickr (CC0 1.0).

But then, like a flash, I remembered something from my own life that occurred almost 40 years ago, during my initial entry to France. I was a youthful 21-year-old backpacker, not the gap-year backpacker I would write about later, and was having my first authentic conversation with a native speaker. Instead of a husband, I was traveling with several companions, not one of whom spoke a word of the language of love.

We were checking into a seedy, Parisian budget hotel on the right bank. The front desk clerk spoke at a speed beyond my college ken, and from what I understood, yes, he had a room, but just one for the four of us (one boy and three girls).

My hesitation to reply, searching for the right words, and the panicked look in my eyes, stretched beyond the limits of his harried patience, and he demanded: “Vous comprenez, alors, mademoiselle?” Do you understand, miss?

Pas de tout,” I replied, so pleased that I’d managed to tell him that I understood most of what he’d said.

Oh, la,” he replied, straightening his posture and rolling his eyes in that distinctively Gallic way. “You understood nothing,” he said, in heavily accented English.

“No, no,” I countered, not even aware of how quickly I’d collapsed, reverting to the comfort of English. “I meant, I didn’t understand everything.”

I didn’t want him to think I was a complete imbecile. But the damage was done. I’d told him I hadn’t understood a word, when what I’d wanted to convey was that I’d understood, but perhaps not every word. The simple insertion of the little word “de” had completely changed what I’d said. “Pas tout.” Not everything. “Pas de tout.” Nothing at all. My merry band of four American youth did settle into a single room that night, but my faux pas would haunt me for the balance of our stay in Paris.

Fast-forward to my present-day classroom. “Did you understand today’s lesson?” I ask. “Pas de tout,” is the response, and now I smile. “Not everything,” is what she means, and not, “Nothing at all.”

She’s making the same mistake I did forty years ago. How can I possibly fault her?

A Catalan breakfast a la Cee-lo Green

Two months into our year-long gap-year journey, my husband and I have arrived in Barcelona after having spent seven weeks in my beloved France.

The familiar doorbell chime greeting of “bonjour, messieurs-dames” each time we walk into a shop or hotel has been replaced with a simple, straightforward “hola.” And we’re reminded at every turn by the abundant bright red-and-yellow striped flags and the street signs and billboards (the words of which I can decipher only a few), that we’re not yet fully in Spain; we’re in Catalonia, as we were in Andorra on our way here.

Now and then, I’ll spot a familiar word, like bella for beautiful, carrer for street or gambeta for shrimp.

Ordering food off a Catalan menu can be a real adventure!

On our very first morning in Spain, we experience one of those unexpected, laugh-out-loud moments that surprise you when you travel. In the well-lit hotel breakfast room, painted pale green and decorated with plentiful plastic oranges and daisies, we are the only two Americans filling our plates from the buffet. Imagine our surprise when the English-language rock music playing in the background launches into Cee-Lo Green’s original “Forget You.”

We practically drop our huevos in our laps. Are they really playing the uncensored version? “I’m like, 
f*** you! And f*** her too!”

No one else in the cantina even flinches. Ah, the beauty and innocence of enjoying another country’s music while you have no idea what the lyrics mean.

Breakfast in Barcelona

Photo credits (clockwise from top): Cee-Lo, by Pat Guiney via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Hello sign, by via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Manifestació Som Una Nació, Nosaltres Decidim! 50, by Merche Pérez via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Breakfast (Barcelona, Spain), by PunkToad via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The Golden Virgin & Kid

Marseille was founded in 600 BC. As the oldest town in France, it’s now the second largest city in the country (although the residents of Lyon often like to challenge this claim). My husband and I have an early seafood dinner along the lines of yachts and fishing boats and are pleasantly surprised that the wharf area isn’t half as gritty as we imagined.

Despite the sea breezes, the day is extremely hot, lethargy prevails and we find ourselves purchasing the most touristy tickets of our year. We take the miniature baby blue train on wheels that wanders the city and up to the top of a limestone peak with a panoramic view over the city.

As we approach the summit, the electronically generated (and apparently translated) French commentary announces we’re arriving at the Notre Dame de la Garde church, famous for its 30-foot high gilded Madonna and Child atop the steeple.

So far, so good except that the English translation that follows suggests that we “fold our necks and look up to see the golden Virgin and her kid.”

We must be the only English speakers aboard because we’re the only ones laughing.

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for sharing these très drôles d’histoires (gosh, did I get that right?), one of which was at your own expense.

Readers, any faux pas of note to report from your travels, yours or others’? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published last September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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