The art of communication.
We had just arrived at Dover on the ferry from Calais. Our luggage was being examined even though we were going through a Green Channel.
The custom officer showed me a card with English words that, as I didn’t know the language at the time, were Greek to me. I shook my head to indicate that I didn’t understand and he realised my dilemma.
Parlez-vous français?, he enquired.
Un petit peu, I replied.
Avez-vous une montre? he continued pointing at my wrist.
I nodded that I understood the question and turning to my friends Alberto and Giovanni I said in Italian: Vuole sapere che ora e’. (He wants to know the time).
At which point he burst out laughing thus showing that he spoke my language which he hadn’t revealed hoping to see if I would say something incriminating regarding goods that we might be smuggling.
He wished us bonne chance and gave us the green light.
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This wasn’t the only time that I had to resort to a foreign language to communicate. On one occasion, having rented a room from a law student and still lacking an adequate vocabulary, I had to rely on the few words of Latin that I remembered from my school days.
It’s not every day that one is asked by his landlord – wanting to know if I had a girlfriend – Habeas tu puella?
I am not sure whether it was grammatically correct but I got the gist of the question.
As a matter of fact, despite my verbal deficiency, I had an English girlfriend who, luckily for me, knew enough Italian having attended evening classes.
◊ ◊ ◊
It took me six months to learn the rudiments of the local lingo; enough, more or less, to understand what I was hearing and give me the opportunity to utter an appropriate reply.
If sometimes I was uncertain about what was being said, I would take the risk of nodding or shaking my head to signify assent or dissent.
This trick usually worked but when it didn’t I was left with egg on my face.
My most embarrassing moment happened on a coach trip to Italy when those strategies backfired. I was travelling with my girlfriend and I noticed that the driver and I were the only males. Not that it mattered as they seemed congenial companions.
We had stopped at various service stations en route and we had to return to the last one because one of the ladies had left her passport behind.
I was smugly congratulating myself for having secured mine inside my coat’s pocket when we approached the German passport control.
My self-complacency soon evaporated. My document was found to have expired the previous day and the authorities were refusing me to continue my journey.
It was at this point that the bulldog spirit of my fellow travellers came into action. They threatened a sit-in and to remain on German soil until I was allowed to resume my voyage. After a lot of argy-bargy, our courier managed to exercise her charm on the captain in charge who eventually relented.
I could not find adequate words to thank the ladies for their solidarity but my girlfriend did so on my behalf. One of my newly-acquired comrades said something that I did not understand.
As she was smiling I thought that a nod was just what was needed and did so at the same time mumbling ‘Oh, yes…’
The smile vanished from her face and I later learned that what she had said was
‘ You must think that we English are potty.’
It was a salutary lesson that taught me not to make incautious remarks.
Now, nearly sixty years later, I feel that I have mastered enough vocabulary to communicate without inappropriate nodding.
© Luigi Pagano
Ah, yes, unfamiliar languages can be a linguistic minefield. Take German – it could be so easy to thank your host after a meal for the lovely fressen (animal food as opposed to essen, human food!). I once had a door closed in my face in a rustic French village when I held up a 5 litre plastic container and asked if they would fill it up with eggs. (L’ouef instead of l’eau.) Sat in with a band in Botswana and suggested playing blues in the key of E. Their guitarist said A, so I said OK and we launched… Read more »
The English language can be a source of embarrassment for us foreigners, Steve.
A similar after-meal incident happened to a German student in my class. Asked if he wanted some more, he replied “No, I am fed up” and thanked his hosts with “Thank you for a very funny meal”. He himself recounted the occasion during a lesson, so I have to assume the mishap really happened.