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WORLD OF WORDS: When words fail you: i.e., you have a throbbing toothache in a foreign country

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 traveled to Corsica last summer to do the GR20 two-week hike across the island, said to be the most grueling long-distance trail in Europe. (She was also, btw, collecting material for Book #2!) When she told me this, I remember thinking: she’s chosen such a curious location! As some readers may recall from Lorraine Mace’s interview with novelist Vanessa Couchman, Corsica exudes a sense of displacement. Annexed by France in 1769, it retains a distinctly Italian flavor. Marianne told meshe read Couchman’s novel, The House at Zaronza, which is set in Corsica, when preparing for her trip. But nothing, readers, could have prepared her for the adventure she shares with us below. —ML Awanohara

My worst travel nightmare has materialized: a throbbing toothache in a foreign country. From experience, I’m sure it’s a dead nerve and I need antibiotics tout de suite.

After two days of downing pain relievers—I am miles from a town of any size on Corsica—I know I must deal with this immediately. Certainly before boarding a ferry from France to Sardinia, Italy—if there’s going to be any chance of me communicating with the doctor.

Readers, as you know I love immersing myself in the world of words. Can you imagine how I felt being in a situation where I was about to have no words?

throbbing-toothache-nightmare

We arrive in Bonafacio, a striking city with a stout hilltop fortress and stunning white chalk cliffs on the southern tip of the island. France is famous for its red tape and I’m ready to tackle it with respect to healthcare.

We reserve a late afternoon ferry for my emergency journey to Italy. Close to tears from the ache, I tell our hotel desk clerk what’s wrong and ask if she can get me a medical appointment. She picks up the phone and dials the local doctor whose office is down at the port. “Yes, he is seeing walk-in patients this morning. Here’s his address and our shuttle will take you.”

We enter his bare-bones, second-story walk-up office in a pastel 18th-century building overlooking the sparkling harbor. I wait ten minutes until his current patient comes out and then in I go. All he asks is my name. No ID, no insurance paperwork, nothing else. I’m in need and he’s treating me. A couple of questions, a quick look in my mouth, a few taps on my teeth, and he writes two prescriptions: one for an antibiotic and one for pain (a drug not available back home). Total damage: $33.

We head to the pharmacy next door, shell out a whopping $16 for the meds, and we’re on our way. Less than an hour after my plaint at the hotel and just shy of $50 for an impromptu doctor’s consult and the cure for my pain. I pop the pills and by the time we board the ferry hours later, my jaw is no longer on fire.

I can only imagine how long visitors to the US would wait, what documents they would be required to provide, and how much they would pay for the same treatment. Red tape and unconscionable fees in France? Not when it comes to healthcare.

french-health-care

* * *

What a harrowing tale, Marianne! But the happy ending reminds me of the first time I went to a doctor in Britain. I was astounded that there weren’t any bills and the doctor simply tried to help me. After that, I became a national-health-service convert. It was a formative moment. It’s also a timely reminder of what we may be giving up in this country—I’m thinking of our post-election debate! —ML Awanohara

Readers, have you ever had this kind of nightmare in a foreign country? Do tell in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in September 2015 with 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. The couple has just now taken early retirement in Park City, Utah, where she plans to spend her time working on Book #2. Marianne has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. All other images via Pixabay except the one of red tape: Tied up in red tape, by James Petts via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

WORLD OF WORDS: The travail of travel abroad with a group of middle schoolers (2/2)

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?

What is it like to tour France with a bunch of American middle schoolers? It involves travel, for sure, but also no small amount of travail, as Marianne Bohr, who besides being a writer is a teacher of middle-school French, discovered this past spring break. This month we present Part Two of her lively travel/travail-ogue; anyone traveling with kids this summer should appreciate. (Miss Part One? Find it here.)

We are now four days into April and my students and I have been to Paris and to several chateaux in the Loire Valley. Amid some moans, groans and yawns, I’ve been reminding them that the English word travel comes from the French word travail. Work. Yes, travel can sometimes be a lot of work.

That said, we’ve already had plenty of enjoyable moments, including the rare sight of a rainbow over the Château de Chambord. Our French tour director, Nathalie, suggested this as the title for my next book: A Rainbow Over Chambord.

And now we’ve made it to gentle, lovely Normandy and Brittany. Apples and butter, Camembert and cows. No drama, no high emotions today—not until we reach the D-Day beaches tomorrow. We’re in the land of crêpes and galettes.

And what would our nine days be without a rude French waiter—actually quite difficult to find these days.

Monsieur Méchant, my students call him. They’re using one of our vocabulary words! Mr. Mean.

While they’ve learned to appreciate some French delicacies (poulet confit, profiteroles, pork rillettes, chicken liver pâtéun croque monsieur), they occasionally fall back on the familiar.

“That may be the worst sandwich I’ve ever had.”

“Ah, so you’ve learned an important lesson, non? Never order a baguette called The American in France!”

We have reached Mont Saint-Michel, a spikey medieval stronghold and pilgrimage destination jutting out into the English Channel. I revel in the calm of its cloister, three arches of which are open to the sea.

This place looks like a French Hogwarts, and this would be the dining hall. Perfect.

Dozens of seagulls soaring overhead—look how cute they are up close!

So, Mont St Michel was first built in the 700s? That’s over 1,000 years ago!

“Your math skills astound me,” I say with a smile.

We amble down the steep, corkscrewed lanes of the abbey and then through the village below. As I point out the rustic La Mère Poulard Café, famous for its fluffy omelettes Normandes, we manage to bump, very literally, into a working film crew. They push us aside. Make way for the star.

“Hey, they’re shooting a film—wow, a French actress!”

“Do you know her, Madame Bohr?”

“I think it’s just a commercial or there would be more cameras, right?”

We stand and watch two takes, gawking from the sides of the cobblestoned footpath, as the thirty-something beauty performs a soliloquy on a cell phone. Our brush with Gallic fame for the day. I google the actress that evening—redheaded French actress with blue eyes. How many could there be? And there she is: Audrey Fleurot, of Les IntouchablesMidnight in Paris and a yet-unknown film shot on Mont St. Michel.

“I had no idea you spoke so much French, Madame Bohr. You can ask directions and read the signs and talk to our guides and order food. And you can even order wine!”

Thank God for that. J’ai la patate (I’m in the mood).
Brittany and Normandy

Our longest day

“I thought our room was on the first floor. She said premier étage, didn’t she?”

“Why do we need the elevator?”

“Because in France, the first floor is on the second floor. We talked about it in class, but now you’ll remember,” I say. 

Our coach puts dozens of kilometers of narrow country roads behind us, weaving past stone buildings in various states of disrepair. They’ve been here for centuries—long before World War II came close to obliterating them all. Houses, barns, stables, outbuildings, storage sheds, churches. Some appear to have come through the war unscathed, their bucolic charm intact. Others lie in pieces, barely recognizable under gold and milky lichen, thick grasses and specks of blue spring wildflowers.

Who were the people who lived here during the war? French country homes are rarely sold, customarily passed down through families, so it’s likely those who live here now, lived here in the 1940s, or at least their forebears did. Stories of Allied sacrifice and bravery were shared across generations, thus, many yards fly both French and American flags.

“Madame Bohr, it feels like we’re at the seashore.”

“We ARE at the seashore. We’re in Normandy, close to the D-day BEACHES,” I say. “Don’t you remember what Nathalie told us and what we discussed this morning? D-day, Jour-J, to the French, took place on the English Channel, La Manche. You’ll see where the battles were fought as soon as we get off the bus.”

I find the beaches of Northern France melancholy by nature: cold, gray, rocky. Add the D-day landings and my heart wants to break. There’s salt in the air, and humidity. Remarkable humidity. Seagulls scream overhead. The landscape at Pointe du Hoc, virtually untouched since 1944 and pockmarked with deep bomb craters, is dotted with dense, low-slung bushes of tightly packed yellow beach blooms. A tiny ginger-breasted European robin twitches its head in the brush, trilling morning song. The inexorable persistence of nature on such a blood-soaked bluff.

Do my spring-breakers understand what happened here seventy years ago? For that matter, do I or any of us truly understand?

It’s an emotionally gloomy day, despite blue skies and a crisp wind. We arrive at the Normandy American Cemetery, honoring the Americans who died in Europe during World War II, and the yellow roses have changed to spiky mauve and burgundy heather. I’ve visited this sacred spot multiple times, yet it never fails to make me cry. How could it not? Seeing the black and white photographs of the fresh, young faces of men—boys, actually—displayed on the walls of the Visitors Center is all it takes.

I reiterate to my charges Nathalie’s suggestion that each of them find a soldier from Maryland, or the state in which he or she was born, take a picture of the grave marker and research him when they return home. Say a prayer, be grateful, say thank you to him and his family.

My students gaze out over Omaha Beach to the English Channel and I wonder what they’re thinking, dreaming. Are they imagining a war that seems so very long ago? What was I thinking at their age? As I recall, it was always about the future. About all that lay ahead. Life yet to unfold. Now, however, with decades and so many of life’s major decisions behind me, I’m in the present, appreciating the privilege of sharing history with students, watching it come alive in their eyes.

As we stand on this promontory where what happened changed the world, my wish for my charges, as it is for my children: put the important things in relief and let the trivial falls aside. Appreciate what they have and what was secured for them on this cliff in France.

Omaha Beach

“Do my spring-breakers understand what happened here? For that matter, do I or any of us truly understand?”

In the end, what will they remember?

The end of our nine-day trip looms.

I recall being enchanted, smitten, after my first taste of France. Have my students fallen in love as well? Have they caught the very same Francophile bug?

“Are we taking the metro or the RER into Paris?”

 “Bravo! You know the difference.” I applaud their progress.

There has been plenty of hilarity and silliness followed by moments of reflection and illumination.

Our final evening in Paris. A cruise on the Seine. Notre Dame soars, the river banks crawl with revelers, the Eiffel Tower glitters. My students shout with glee, their voices echoing, each time we glide under one of Paris’ many bridges.

“I’ve never laughed so hard.”

“I can’t believe I ate chicken liver. I really can’t believe I actually liked it!”

“This is the best meal I’ve ever had.”

“I’ll remember this trip for the rest of my life.”

“I’ll never forget how beautiful Paris is. I’m so sad we leave tomorrow.”

“I want to stay. When I come back to France…”

French music to my ears.
Eiffel Tower by Night

* * *

Brava, Madame Bohr! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this account of your travels/travails with your students. C’était très drôles! Like you, I also wonder whether this trip will have a long-lasting effect. If only we could track your charges over the next ten years: how many will take gap years, become expats? You’ve certainly done your bit to point them in the right direction! —ML Awanohara

Readers, have you ever had this kind of adventure with a group of young people abroad, and if so, were your travels full of travails? Do tell 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 in September 2015 with 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.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, SO much more than a round-up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. First collage: (clockwise from top left) Audrey Fleurot à l’ouverture du Printemps du cinéma à l’UGC La Défense, by Georges Biard via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); Normandy cow and glass of wine via Pixabay; Tidal Plains from the Cloisters Mont St. Michel Abbey France, by amanderson2 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); La Mere Poulard, Mont St Michel, by John Mason via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and view of Mont Saint-Michel via Pixabay. Second collage: Normandy American Cemetery via Pixabay; and [untitled – Pointe du Hoc], by Scott via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of Paris by night via Pixabay.

WORLD OF WORDS: The travail of travel abroad with a group of middle schoolers (1/2)

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?

What is it like to tour France with a bunch of American middle schoolers? It involves travel, for sure, but also no small amount of travail, as Marianne Bohr, who besides being a writer is a teacher of middle-school French, discovered this past spring break. This month we present Part One of her lively travel/travail-ogue; Part Two will appear in August. Anyone traveling with kids this summer should appreciate.

It’s departure day, Friday, March 25, and our long-awaited trip to France is about to begin. We arrive at Dulles with our navy and silver Education First (EF) backpacks, excited but subdued. The violence in Belgium just days ago hovers.

The exuberance of the youth I’m accompanying, however, quickly overcomes any pallor and my excitement rises. Delta whisks us from Dulles to JFK to begin the five-hour layover for our flight to Paris. My always-hungry adolescents make multiple trips down the interminable airport hallways in search of their next round of Panda Express, Shake Shack and Jamba Juice, despite my reminders that we’ll have dinner and breakfast on our flight.

While my charges explore, I stay put to watch a blood red sunset to the west. “It’s a beach sunset,” declares an adorable French youngster, face pressed against the terminal window. I’m grateful for his mellifluous chatter that readies my ear for the nine days of French to come.

We board the 767 and my Tylenol PM kicking in, I can’t wait to pass out for seven hours on my travel pillow, under a red felt blanket. My students are of a different mind.

“OMG! Mockingjay!”

“They have The Walking Dead. I can’t believe it!”

“Look at all these movies!”

“Are they FREE, Madame Bohr?”

“I am so binge-watching all night!”

So much for my entreaties to get some sleep.

“You’ll all be walking zombies yourselves tomorrow morning,” I lament. Full bellies notwithstanding, they speculate about what’s for dinner and plan their watching strategies.

An overnight flight between us and the exuberance of the evening’s departure, I awaken semi-refreshed to glum faces, tussled hair and bleary eyes. We snake for well over two hours through the post-Brussels passport control maze at Charles de Gaulle and then finally, after spying and retrieving a temporarily lost suitcase that has inexplicably landed in a pile of unclaimed bags, exit the confines of the terminal for our entry into France.

Amid some moans, groans and yawns, I remind my fellow travelers that the English word travel comes from the French word travail. Work. Yes, travel can sometimes be a lot of work.

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

Wide-eyed wonder abounds as we tour the City of Light.

“I saw the Eiffel Tower first!”

“Look, Notre Dame!”

“OMG, Nutella! Nutella crêpes! Nutella milkshakes!”

“Is she a supermodel? She’s definitely a supermodel.”

“He must be French. He’s wearing a scarf.”

Having endlessly extolled the virtues of a genuine French baguette—crunchy on the outside, chewy in the middle, ever so slightly burned on the bottom—I suppose I’m to blame for two students buying two-foot-long baguettes and downing them as we stroll the boulevards. All part of the culinary adventure that is France.

“I thought the Mona Lisa would be bigger.”

“That statue’s just famous ‘cuz she has no arms.”

“Hot chocolate is only two euros! And they serve it with whipped cream!”

“I definitely want to study in Paris.”

“I just love the Seine. Can we do a boat tour?”

Paris impressions

A rainbow over Chambord

Time to leave the hurly burly of the city and her anxiety-producing, camo-clad, machine gun-wielding guards, for the Loire Valley. So many châteaux, churches and country pleasures await.

“Why don’t Chartres’ spires match?”

“Is the stained glass really 1,000 years old?”

“Did people actually live in these châteaux?”

“It’s freezing inside! But look at the size of the fireplaces.”

At Chambord we’ve escaped a quick spring squall just in time, retreating into a mellow-lighted salon de thé. In the shadow of the romantic castle, I’m enjoying a crêpe with a student: crème de marron (chestnut cream) for me, caramel du beurre salé (salted butter caramel) for him. We savor our final bites, the skies clear—and a perfect arc en ciel (rainbow) materializes from one horizon to the other across the grounds of the chateau.

Nathalie, our French tour director, stops at our table and suggests a title for my next book: A Rainbow Over Chambord.

Pourquoi pas? (Why not?)

“What are those huge trees?”

“Why is their bark peeling so much?”

“Are those trees in the square dead?”

“They look like angry old people shaking their fists.”

“Why do they cut off all their branches?”

I recall the first time I saw the closely pruned—pollarded—French trees in the seventies. They made me sad, looking as if they’d been abused, the barren sentinels barred from reaching their natural height and breadth. But as I learned back then, such drastic cropping yields lush lollipop trees in summer, providing thick, summer greenery and dense, cooling shade.

I explain to my students about the trees and this leads to discussions of French rationality and affinity for order, English versus French gardens, the philosophes, and the French penchant for debate.

All because of an angry black tree in a village square.

“I love this hotel!”

“The one in Paris was way too modern.”

“This one has charm.”

“Our room is so cool. It has a back door!”

On peut sortir? Can we go out, Madame Bohr?”

I steal away on my own after dinner—I leave through my own back door—to lose myself in reverie and take a solo look at the château. Azay-le-Rideau, built on a human scale, one of my favorites. Grand enough to be called a château yet small enough to be accessible. I imagine myself living there, tapestries warming the walls, carpets softening the floors, surrounded by a duck pond. On my own for a few minutes, I’m transported back to the ’70s, conjuring the feelings of the romantic young student I was. Smitten then; I’m smitten now. My beloved France.

Once again, time to board the bus. This time amid uncontrolled giggling. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” What’s going on?” I ask.

They can barely speak. “The bus driver. Peeing by the tree. I saw things I didn’t want to!” Cackles. Guffaws. Innocents abroad. Innocence in France.

Loire Valley Tour 1

Vous avez la patate?

“Our shower only has half a door!”

“Are all bathrooms like that in France?”

“The whole floor is soaked!”

“How much butter is in this croissant? Is it okay if I add more?”

Our Loire Valley tour continues. Each morning as we load the bus, our guide asks how we are.

Ça va? Vous avez la patate? Vous avez la pêche? Vous avez la banane? (Do you have the potato; the peach; the banana?)

Each is a clever way to ask: Are you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed today? Oui, j’ai la patate. Every language has its apt idioms.

Students scrutinize the fashion of their French peers. While I see few differences, they are keenly aware of every one and school me on the distinctions.

Their shoes: “They just look like sneakers to me.”

Their jeans: “Everyone wears skinny jeans, even the boys.”

Their jackets: “They’re longer and actually match their outfits.”

Their hair: “The guys have a lot of quiffs.”

(What’s a quiff? It’s like a whoosh or a puff, they tell me. Oh, you mean like a pompadour? I say. My fashion eyes are definitely too old.)

The students negotiate the topiary labyrinth at Chenonceau, more interested in the grounds than the interior of the château. While they visit the donkey farm to the side of the sycamore-lined entryway, I discover an elegant orangery-style restaurant tucked behind the cafe. I’m off in a daydream, imagining a romantic dinner with my husband in the not-too-distant future.

Although this is my fourth visit to the castle (my first was in ’78 with Joe, as students freezing on motorbikes), Chenonceau never fails to charm. I send my stateside travel partner a text:

We must return and stay at one of the village’s ivy-covered inns; Chenonceau now has a gourmet restaurant!

The château boasts two magnificent gardens designed by the two women in King Henry ii’s life: one by the mistress and one by the wife. I choose the one that’s more shaded and compact, that of her majesty, Catherine de Medici. Daffodils, hyacinths and other early spring blossoms have made their way into full color, so different from the austere, pallid portraits of the queen inside the castle.

But the persona I assume is that of Diane de Poitiers—the beautiful, fashionista mistress of the king, twenty years his senior. The original cougar, I think with a chuckle; a fitting observation by a woman who just turned sixty. One day, some day, I’ll morph into Diane at a costume ball, despite the fact that her calculating ruthlessness is about as distant from my personality as I can fathom. But that’s what masquerades are about, no doubt.

The gardens are now under a soft, spring drizzle. I envision royal steeds trotting up the sandy lane to deposit me at Chenonceau’s drawbridge from a gilded coach. But I’m brusquely yanked back to the present as a student calls from behind a colossal planter:

“What time do we have to be back on the bus, Madame Bohr? Are we late?”

My travelers are astounded by the size of the four châteaux we’ve visited.

Wait ’til we see Versailles, I say.

“Versailles? I can’t wait to go to Versailles. Part of Kim Kardashian’s wedding was there!”

Some things my students say make me less proud than others.
Loire Valley Tour 2

* * *

Très drôles, Marianne! I love that you snuck in a Diane de Poitiers moment just before your charges brought you back to the 21st-century by bringing up Kim Kardashian’s nuptials at Versailles. So, did the sight of that rainbow over Chamboud compensate for your travails? And did any of your students show the potential for taking a gap year, or perhaps even choosing the expat life, one day? I can’t wait to read Part Two. —ML Awanohara

Readers, have you ever had this kind of adventure with a group of young people abroad, and if so, were your travels full of travails? Do tell 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 in September 2015 with 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.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and SO much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. First collage: Photos of baguettes, boat on Seine, and Mona Lisa via Pixabay; just how French, by thellr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Second collage: Rainbow, Azay-le-Rideau, and Cambord via Pixabay; Crepes pomme/poire du caramel au beurre sale, by Cyril Doussin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Pollards, by Garry Knight via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Bottom collage: (clockwise from top left) Chenonceau gardens, by Adam Kent via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); [French boy with quiff], by Reims Media Agency via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kim Kardashian, by Eva Rinaldi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Diane De Poitiers (1499-1566), via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

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 Oh-Barcelona.com 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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WORLD OF WORDS: At least know the meaning of “gauche” before you travel 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, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out in September with She Writes Press, recounts some of the bad elements she and her husband encountered during their travels.

When living in or even just briefly visiting a country not your own, bad behavior often involves words. Or sometimes, the lack of them.

Over the course of the adult gap year I took with my husband to explore Europe, we frequently witnessed what we considered bad behavior by expats or tourists. There’s no excuse for being in a country without learning the basics of its culture and at least a modicum of words for pleasantries. To do otherwise selfishly places you and your mother tongue at the center of the language universe and disrespects the country and the people you’ve chosen to visit.

Rude Americans in the City of Light

Our 365 days of travel began with a month in Paris. In the space of two evenings, we observed very different, yet equally disappointing, back-to-back dining experiences. The food was terrific but our neighbors were not. Both incidents involved Americans in the City of Light for long stays.

Parisian cafe bad elements

Photo credit: Parisian bistro at night, by La Citta Vita via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The first took place in a bright busy bistro where we were seated next to a retired married couple from Reno, Nevada. They had been coming to Paris for six weeks at the end of every summer for several years.

The second was in a dim crêperie where we sat across from a middle-aged man and woman from U.S. parts unknown (although her accent gave her away as coming from the deep south). He taught something somewhere to students in Paris and she stated indignantly as we ordered our drinks that she, “could not take another year over here—twelve months was more than enough.” Everyone has a story.

Some of the two couples’ background they shared with us and other bits we overheard. What absolutely amazed me—in fact made me wince—was that none of these four Americans even attempted to speak French to the wait staff.

I completely identify with not knowing a language; we traveled through multiple countries whose languages eluded me, yet we always learned to say hello, please, thank you and you’re welcome.

But all four of these people had spent significant time in France. Would it have been so difficult to read off the menu and say, “la salade” and ”le poulet” instead of “the salad” and “the chicken?” Could the guy who’s been teaching here for a year at least have learned to say, “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” instead of “the check, please?” Might they all have been able replace, “Thank you—goodbye,” with “Merci—au revoir?”

I’m sympathetic towards tourists who travel for brief visits, but after six weeks every year and a full twelve months in Paris, there’s simply no excuse. That’s behaving badly in my book.

Blatant bad behavior in Aix

Well into our sabbatical year having traveled through 20 additional countries, we were back in the pleasures of France. And yet again, we found ourselves observing a more blatant brand of bad behavior.

We had settled in the stylish university town of Aix-en-Provence at the height and in the heat of a south-of-France summer. One of our favorite pastimes was sitting for long mornings under the dense shade of sycamores—les platanes—their green canopies arching over appealing squares filled with tiny bistro tables. The unique mosaic of the sycamores’ peeling bark intrigued us—uneven patterns of pastel yellows, tawny russets, avocado greens and dull grays—and we never tired of studying the colors.

Aix plantanes

But on one morning, our idyllic interlude under royal sycamores was marred by the manners of plebeians.

Enjoying cafés au lait, croissants, and the daily chatter of French summer school students in the outdoor shade, we were startled when an Eastern European quartet of two tanned Moms and their Mini-Me daughters, each one more rude than the other, unceremoniously marched onto the terrace.

There were no “bonjours” and no smiles in response to the sweet greetings of the waitress. The women’s bravado more than upset the drowsy morning ambience.

All were similarly clad in skinny jeans, patent leather stilettos and Jackie-O shades with “spoiled” plastered across heavily made-up faces. Distressed that the cafe served no food for breakfast and when politely urged, as we had been, to run up the street to the local boulangerie for croissants, the most vocal of the four retorted brusquely and loudly in accented English, “What, the French don’t eat breakfast? Ridiculous.”

We so wanted to see her wobble up the cobblestoned hill in search of pastries in those heels.

stilettos in Aix

Rather than rebuke the vocal twenty-something for bad behavior and creating a scene, however, her mother barked an order for orange juice—“freshly squeezed.” The OJ not forthcoming, they settled loudly for espressos, plopped down in their chairs and insolently picked up their Blackberries with identical pouts.

Bad-mannered people come from all corners of the world, and, unfortunately, they sometimes chose to sit next to us.

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for sharing these horror stories! I agree, more people need to join your world of words!

Readers, have you ever met the tourists from hell, and were they using English in a non-English-speaking country at the time? We’d love to hear about it 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 in early 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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WORLD OF WORDS: She spoke in Italian to me, I spoke in English to her, and we had a perfect conversation

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, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out in September with She Writes Press, has a story for us about one of the pleasanter linguistic surprises that occurred during year-long travels. Naturally, it happened on an Italian train!

Sometimes the basics of another language are all you need.

For this month’s post, I’d like to share a story about the time when my husband, Joe, and I were on a train from Naples to Sicily.

* * *

All aboard!

We board the train in Naples behind a pack of uniformed, fully armed carabinieri—images of the Italian Wild West, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano dancing in our heads. We picture the potential for some seriously illegal transactions on this particular itinerary: Naples bound for Sicily.

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/jm3/960186/ (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/; La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en; Man with shotgun in Sicily[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Man_with_shotgun_in_Sicily.jpg], by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0); Man with shotgun in Sicily, by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Our train travels down the boot to its toe and eventually on to Taormina, our Sicilian destination. The trip will take seven hours including the two-mile ferry trip to the island across the Strait of Messina. We discuss the merits of building a tunnel but it makes no seismic sense, our guidebook says; the earthquake-prone region categorically rules out the possibility. But then we read the real reason is that organized crime controls the crossing—and they like the status quo.

Next station stop: Villa San Giovanni (after which the train will board a ferry to the island of Sicilia!)

We stop at Villa San Giovanni, the town at the western tip of mainland Italy. She, Italian, 30-something, boards the train with great flourish and an oversized valise.

Joe and I are in deep conversation about the logistics of our arrival in Taormina and simply say, “Buongiorno,” after helping her hoist her bag onto the rack overhead.

We finally arrive at the terminal where they split the train into two and roll the cars onto rails in the ferry’s cargo hold. This impressive engineering feat can take some time and during the process, our carriage loses power (no lights or air conditioning), adding an element of the sinister to the experience.

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily[https://www.flickr.com/photos/comprock/5292490503/], by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily, by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).


Joe, a ship engineer, ever interested in anything marine, goes off to observe the transfer logistics. I stay in our darkened train compartment to chat with the young woman sitting across from me.

Once it’s just the two of us, she asks brightly, “Dove alloggia lì Sicilia?” She wants to know where we’ll stay once we arrive on Sicily.

“We have a hotel in Taormina,” I reply, “the Bel Soggiorno.” And just like that, we establish an understanding for the conversation that ensues. She will speak in her melodic Italian and I will respond in English, each of us knowing just enough of the other’s language to understand but not speak.

She gushes that she loves the Bel Soggiorno, telling me the views of Mount Etna are spectacular and the terrace looking over the sea is so romantic.

“I’m happy to hear that,” I respond, “because our room is only $80 and I was afraid it would be a bit dumpy.”

“Oh no,” she tells me in Italian. “It’s just that it’s early March and rates are very low.”

Her name is Carolina, the Italian version of our daughter’s name, so I like her right away. She’s of that breed of seriously overweight women who don’t behave like they’re heavy: she’s confident, has perfect makeup, is dressed to the nines in bright colors, wears high-heeled suede boots, and carries herself with panache. She knows what to do with what she has, maximizing her assets, as the Italians like to say, in true Italian bella figura style.

Photo credit: Untitled[https://www.flickr.com/photos/lovemaegan/4532998717/], by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credit: Untitled, by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Our conversation is a particularly satisfying lopsided exchange because we manage to share so much in spite of our Italian-English volley. I fill her in on Joe’s and my gap year traveling through Europe, she teaches me the lovely, lilting Italian pronunciation of Sicily (Sicilia–See-CHEE-lya) and I explain the geography of the States.

Like many Europeans, the two places she is most anxious to visit are New York City and California. She asks if she can see them both in a week. I smile, draw a map on the back of her ticket and explain just how far apart they are, suggesting she needs at least three weeks to see them properly.

“It’s almost 3,000 miles from New York to San Francisco,” I tell her and California is a big state.

She responds with a laugh, “Allora, mi prendo tre settimane!” Then I’ll take three weeks!

Passengers may now go on deck to view Straits of Messina…

We leave the train for a quick look at our passage across the water, but the wind is fierce, kicking up whitecaps, and we quickly return to the dim warmth of our compartment. I learn that Carolina lives in Naples—she’s a native Neopolitana—and works in an art gallery. She is headed for a long weekend in Taormina to visit her boyfriend. She makes the trip once a month and he travels north with the same frequency to see her.

I ask if she thinks she’ll marry him and she tells me with a wink that she hopes they’ll get engaged this weekend.

“Bravo,” I respond with a giggle and a clap and then ask about a luna di miele—a honeymoon.

Before I finish asking, she says, “Capri,” accent on the first syllable. “Andiamo a Capri.”

I mentally say a quick thank you to my French and Spanish teachers over the years. Knowing these two Romance languages paved the way for this delightful conversation in Italian.

Photo credit: More gossip[https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncanh1/5893263199/], by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credit: More gossip, by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Next stop: Taormina, Sicily

Joe finally returns to his seat once the train is reconnected in Messina for the last leg of our all-day journey. After another twenty minutes, we descend with Carolina onto Taormina’s platform as she drags her bright pink, hard-shelled suitcase, the travel of choice of so many young Italian women, behind her.

She kisses my cheeks, turns and waves, warbling, “Goodbye,” and I call, “Arrivederci!

She embraces her beloved and then ducks into his red sports car.

I follow Joe to the taxi stand, imagine a honeymoon on the horizon, and soon we’re winding up the hill to the Bel Soggiorno.

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri)[https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/20298529790/], by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/;Waving goodbye[https://www.flickr.com/photos/wherearethejoneses/1341937768/], by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/; Volcano Etna at sunset[https://www.flickr.com/photos/gnuckx/4692956069/], by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri), by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0); Waving goodbye, by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Volcano Etna at sunset, by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for this enchanting story! I must say, I admire the way you reach across linguistic barriers and find words in common. In situations where others might give up, you are undaunted. I guess that’s the advantage of living in a world of words?

Readers, have you ever, like Marianne, enjoyed a conversation with someone even though you were both speaking in different languages? We’d love to hear about it 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 in early 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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