Guest Writers Relationships

Je Ne Comprends Pas: A #SoWrong Moment by Margaret Lawrenson

Click on the eyeball to be directed to other writers who are participating in this series in 2013.

About 9 years ago, Margaret Lawrenson and her husband, Malcolm, bought a house in Laroque d’Olmes, France, a faded town whose glory days are long over. About 5 years ago, the British couple started to spend nearly all their time there. Margaret’s blog gives the reader a slice of French life. Her photographs are exquisite and her stories of day-to-day life in a tiny romantic village will make you long to hop across the pond. And yet, there is a longing, too. Despite their largely successful efforts at integration, despite loving much about their life in France, she sometimes misses life in England with friends and family.  Check out Life in Laroque. Follow her on Facebook and Pinterest, too.

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Je Ne Comprends Pas by Margaret Lawrenson

All she wanted to do was to take our order. But we became more and more frustrated, even hysterical, at our inability to explain to the waitress that we’d only given our order (‘café solo e café con leche’ – we could cope with that) about a minute ago to her colleague. Sadly, he wasn’t in view, so we couldn’t point him out. And she couldn’t understand that we were fine thanks, our coffee was on the way, and we didn’t need any more help.

We were in Spain, in Catalonia, visiting our daughter for the weekend, and we couldn’t wait for her to join us in the bar. When she arrived, she smoothly took over, explained the tapas menu to us, and gave our order to el patron. He complimented her on her Spanish, but then spoilt it by wondering if she were Belgian. As if. We’re Anglo-Saxon to the core.

You see? We're fine now. Emily's placed our order and I'm free to take a photo.
You see? We’re fine now. Emily’s placed our order and I’m free to take a photo.

We found it so difficult and frustrating being in Spain with only the most rudimentary language tools. Although all efforts on our part to communicate in Spanish or Catalan were greeted with friendliness and enthusiasm by the locals it was all uphill. We battled to be understood, they battled to understand, but laughter broke down lots of barriers.

That was about 6 months ago. I resolved there and then that I Must Try Harder. I’d learn Spanish; maybe do a course in-line. After all, daughter Emily’s in Spain for the long haul.

Really, I should know myself better. I don’t do learning all on my own. Give me a set of muscle-toning exercises to do in my own time, and I’ll maybe do them once, grudgingly, clock-watching the while. But tell me about a good keep-fit class and I’ll be there every time, one of the group, putting my all into every movement.

And so it was with Spanish. I fiddled about looking for a suitable course on line, found one, and that was as far as I got. I hadn’t been able to find a class to go to locally, though I really looked. Result? I’ve learnt no Spanish. And now I’m paying the price.

Last week, The Orange Man was in town, the place where we live in southern France. Occasionally, he drives up to our patch of France from his patch of Spain with a whole container-load of oranges. His boxes of fruit are so sweet, so juicy, that once he’s set up his stall in the forecourt of a disused petrol station, he sells the lot within a couple of days . Just one snag. He only speaks Spanish.

So I turned up, having painstakingly worked out my order.

“Hola,” I flashed a confident smile. “Una caja de naranjas por favour.”

Big mistake. Despite my accent, he assumed I was fluent. Delighted at last to have the chance of a chat after sessions of mime and sign language, he opened his mouth. Several days’ worth of pent-up chat flowed forth and he didn’t even notice my baffled silence. Beaming, he helped me to the car with my case of fruit. He all but dispensed with the small formality of being paid. And I felt small, and mean. He’d stood there for two long days with nothing to do but wait for customers, and I couldn’t even help him while away five minutes of his time.

There we are:  A container load of oranges.  All I have to do is ask for a box....
There we are: A container load of oranges. All I have to do is ask for a box….

This time, I got away with it, but I’ve got a long way to go before I no longer have to wag my finger at myself – ‘Must Try Harder’

How do people who come to live abroad cope if they don’t try to master the language? We know of English people who’ve been here in France ten years or more and can still barely communicate. If we found it embarrassing telling the waitress we didn’t need her just then or speaking to a vendor of oranges, how much worse would it have been if we’d been trying to contact a plumber, say, or the local town council?

Most of our best times in France are spent sharing experiences – whether it’s a walk in the mountains, an hour at the gym, or simply having a drink together – with our local friends and neighbours. We worked really hard before we came to France to get the basics together, and even harder once we got here. Our efforts were appreciated. It meant we could use local shops instead of making an impersonal trip to the supermarket. So we met people. Locals tell us about the things that are going on, recommend an electrician, invite us to a party, or to go on a walk. We turn up to things so often we’ve become part of the furniture. We’re no longer ‘that English couple’, but simply ordinary active members of our community. It’s been hard work. And we still make embarrassing mistakes, as when we translated the word for organ (as in the splendid instrument you may hear in church) using a word that’s more often used for – um – sexual organs.

Embarrassment is good. It spurs us on. Must Try Harder so that, little by little, we need to Try Far Less Hard, and our Little Learning becomes A Lot.

Ever experience any embarrassing moments while traveling abroad where language let you down?

tweet me @rasjacobson • Margaret ne tweet pas

{NOTE: I want Susie Lindau to know my thoughts are with her today as she bravely faces her double mastectomy. I know she’d want me to say it straight, just like that, because that’s what’s happening. If you know Susie or you know someone who’s battled breast cancer, leave Susie a comment for her HERE. She’s a fighter, that one! #SusieStrong}

74 thoughts on “Je Ne Comprends Pas: A #SoWrong Moment by Margaret Lawrenson

  1. Well, I ought to be the first to comment on my own post, shouldn’t I? Thanks for inviting me to your party, Renée, and thanks for all the support along the way. And by the way. Our days are 6 hours apart. You’ve had breakfast (maybe): I’ve had lunch. Have a great weekend!

    1. Bonjour Margaret! I’m so glad you are here! C’est ci bon! You know I’ve loved this story the moment I read it. Thank you for sharing it with us here today. Language is a funny thing, isn’t it? It can bring us together, but it can really divide us as well. Thank goodness for good interpreters. And Google Translation. 😉

      1. Oh, Google translate is the best. Have you seen that programme though which will translate any phrase you offer it through (say) 8 different languages before bringing it back to English? I must try to find it again. It’s wonderful. Chinese whispers has nothing on it

  2. “Levez-vous idiot. Ne restez pas assis dans la neige.” This is all the French I know. “Get up you idiot. Stop sitting in the snow.” I ain’t goin’ back there.

  3. As a substitute teacher, I work increasingly with Spanish speaking children. I’ve learned to say a few basic things, among them, “I speak Spanish little, and very badly.” And I say it badly. It makes them smile. And lessens their embarrassment to use their English in front of me. I always enjoy reading what you write. And thanks for introducing me to a new blog.

  4. Love your story and the image of you and hubby trying to explain you need nothing more. I [sadly] so relate to your experience with The Orange Man.

    I used to be fluent in Spanish. It was my minor in College and I traveled on Corporate America’s dime to Puerto Rico as a trainer for years. I let those brain cells atrophy over the decade(s) since, and have been caught more than once seventy-seven times with my ability to communicate rudimentary greetings in Spanish. The Spanish Speaker accent remains, so those poor folks think I’m fluent. Gaaaah!

    How many times I’ve asked, “Como se dice en Espanol…?” Like a non-English speaker is going to (1) understand the English word, and (2) provide the Spanish translation for the word I’ve forgotten, like “dingbat.”

    p.s. Do you have a guest house? Why do I ask? No reason. Really!

    1. I so relate to all of that. I worked in Italy for a couple of years after I left school and got to speak pretty good Italian. It’s vanished somewhere in those intervening years, and worse, when I open my mouth to speak it, because I still understand it just fine, French comes out. Nope, no guest house. But I do know plenty of people who have one.

    1. Yes. By the time you’ve worked out whether they’re going to be affronted you don’t speak Catalan or Galician or whatever 10 minutes has passed . But if YOU have trouble, what hope is there for me?

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post, I have a love for most things French, though my French skills have slowly deteriorated without a chance to practice. I’ve experienced the Orange Man phenomenon myself, though, with Russian, of which I know a teensy bit (my in-laws are Russian). I made the mistake of using a word or two around some elderly Russian residents here and then realized the err of my choice. They started speaking full steam and I was left standing there, uncomprehending.

    Embarrassment is a good teacher indeed. Best wishes to you!

    1. Thanks! My husband learnt Russian once, but his efforts led only to confusion the day he interchanged the words for ‘owl’ and ‘plum’. Easily confused, apparently….

  6. Great story! My dad lived in France for many years. When I was visiting once, I mistakenly ordered a the wrong entree for dinner. It was tripe and I was surprised when it was put in front of me. But I ate it – the entire plate because I was too embarrassed to send it back. It is funny now, but I can still smell the tripe!

    1. Well done you! Your apparent enthusiasm will have earned you so many ‘brownie points’ (Brit expression: is it understood?). You probably earned friends for life.

  7. I’ve experienced so many orange man moments. Apparently my French accent isn’t bad and I rehearse what I want to say. And then there’s that awful moment when they talk back and I know, really know, that I just don’t understand but they think I do. But I stand there going ‘ah oui’ in what I think are appropriate moments, and they carry on. And the big black vortex just pulls me in ever deeper…

    1. Yes, it’s that awful moment when you realise that ‘oui’ and ‘non’ are really not enough and they look expectantly at you for that oh-so-important follow up remark :(. Nice to meet you here. We generally chat in France or Norfolk, non?

  8. I have learned and forgotten so many languages. 6 years of French in school, followed closely by 3 years of Spanish, which I seemed to pick up rather quickly, having a young sponge-like brain, and it being similar to my already known French. Throw in a few years of Latin and some attempts to learn Italian on my own for a pending trip to Italy, and that leaves me with speaking . . . one language. English. Even when I try to think of a phrase or word in those formerly studied languages, I find myself flailing.

    Just think how happy you made the Orange Man to think that he was communicating finally with someone who could understand him. Even if YOU knew you couldn’t, did he? And if he didn’t, what did it hurt? It sounds like he was appreciative to have someone to talk to after all that time. So really, you shouldn’t be embarrassed. But don’t let that stop you from always trying harder. Always!

    1. Love this idea of you speaking your very own personal version of Esperanto. It sounds as if you understand a lot, even if the speaking bit leaves something to be desired. Actually, Latin’s really useful isn’t it? Its vocabulary provides lots of clues, even if being able to talk it isn’t a skill many people can come up wth.

  9. This isn’t my story, but two colleagues of mine (the French teacher and the Spanish teacher at my school) traveled to France and Spain with a group of students over Spring Break one year. When the arrived in France, they stopped in a store and the (female) French teacher wanted to buy a watch but hadn’t had a chance to convert her money to francs. So the (female) Spanish teacher offered to put it on her credit card and her friend could repay her later, since the Spanish teacher needed some cash anyway. To make a long story short, when the shop owner asked in French if they were sisters, the Spanish teacher (who understood a bit of French and wanted to try to answer in French) said, no – “Il est mon amant”. She was trying to say “she is my friend.” What came out instead is “he is my lover”. Talk about embarrassing!

  10. Sadly I’ve never been in a foreign language country other than Mexico, where everyone speaks English. So I don’t have any stories to share. I have gotten into trouble before, though, because I don’t speak “Female”! Ba-dump-bump! 🙂

    1. Hey Cowboy! I’m guessing you must have stayed on a resort. There are plenty of parts of Mexico where people don’t speak English. Margaret left a comment for you, but it didn’t get nested properly. Bop back if you’d like to read her words. 😉

      By the way, great post over at your place today. I know you’d rather talk about goats than boobies.

      1. Yes, in the resort areas! Thank you for the nice comment about my post. I actually LOVE talking about boobies but in a different context! 🙂 It’s funny, I barely know Susie, and only through her blog, but it really hit home for some reason. Like most of us cancer has affected friends and family of mine, sometimes with positive results and sometimes not. But the older we get the more these situations seem to hit home. I’ll check back on that comment. Thanks!

  11. I really didn’t realise that. I thought Spanish would be the language of choice, and South American Spanish at that. Now then. My husband would agree that he too sometimes has an inability to speak ‘female’. I couldn’t possible comment.

  12. Je parle francais un peu, et tres mal. I had a whirlwind 2-1/2 days in Paris with a friend who spoke no french, so we were stuck with mine from high school/college thirty years before. Not generally a problem in the tourist areas. But we were walking up towards Montmartre, went sideways or too far or something and got lost, so we stopped at a pharmacy for some bandaids and directions. I said hello and such in French and asked for it as best I could. The nice lady responded in French and then English when she saw I didn’t understand much. When we were leaving she said something in French, I looked blank, and then she translated – my French was very good. I was rather chuffed, as my British friend would say, until I realized that I couldn’t even understand her compliment! Deflate.

    1. That’s the worst, isn’t it, not understanding compliments? I’m guessing it was true though, in that you had mainly made yourself understood, and you hadn’t barged in assuming she’d speak English. Counts for a lot!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed! And I hope you follow Margaret, as she is LIVING in France: you most favorite place. Margaret, Patricia will be traveling to France again — soon! Check out her blog, if you haven’t already subscribed. Every Friday, it’s France! 😉

  13. Thanks! And I hope Susie draws some strength from all of us sending positive comments, even those of us who don’t know her. She sounds amazing.

  14. Love Patricia Sands’ blog, which I haven’t had time to explore fully yet. And as for all the other bloggers who’ve commented…. I’m going to enjoy looking at their blogs early next week. Treat time after a busy weekend.

  15. Me, personally? Thankfully, no. However, I’ve been both instigator in deliberate embarrassment of a friend and a sounding board for another mortified pal.

    I happened to know that rubber in the UK and Australia meant something very different than it would mean to an 8th grade jock friend of mine when we were in Jr High. My friend, Simone, was a transfer from Australia. As a prank, she and I decided she would ask the biggest male jock (my best friend) in our class if she could borrow his “rubber”. Yeah. The mortified look on his face was soooo worth it. When he almost fell out of his seat, mortified, she pretended she’d just forgotten…”Oh, what do you Americans call it again? Oh, an eraser!” The relief as he all but threw his eraser at her was palpable. Hahaha!

    The other time happened the summer before 5th grade. My gal pal best friend’s mom had divorced her dad and went back home to England. She invited my friend to visit. She explained some of the differences, then took her to a fancy restaurant with linens, etc.
    When she realized she didn’t have a napkin, she called the waiter over and asked for one.
    He replied in a very proper, very horrified voice, “Paaardon?” (I always image him with eyebrows raised to the ceiling.
    Her mother quickly corrected, “She means serviette.” And he rapidly headed to get one. Apparently, napkin is the word they used for sanitary pad. LMAO!

  16. Aaaagh! We could really do with a dictionary for English speakers so we coukd avoid faux-pas like these. Trouble is, we’d never know when we had to use it. Are you telling me you NEVER have embarrassing moments though 😉 ?

  17. Hmmm…. some of us aren’t good at learning languages. I’ve tried many (in classes, on my own, via audio, via video), I just can’t do it, barring my own English and I suspect if I’d not learnt it as a child I wouldn’t have managed this either. My maternal grandmother never learnt enough English to speak it or even understand it well though she could read Aramaic apparently! She spoke various pigeon-versions of several languages she’d tried.

    As for me… I spent some time trying to learn Hebrew (which I’ve completely forgotten now) before a trip to Israel a couple of decades ago which would have come in useful when I tried to buy a battery in a store there… but that when I had asked for it in Hebrew, the guy serving said “why don’t you just ask for it in English? We all speak English here.” It was so depressing I just gave up.

  18. Oh it’s so awful when they do that to you isn’t it? When you’ve made such an effort. I know I’m lucky though, in that languages do come fairly easily to me, and that really is a question of luck. Get me on basic maths however, and you’ll soon see what a simpleton I am.

  19. I was at Walgreen’s aggravated out of my mind looking for birthday cards for a couple of kids. One was for our friend’s 10 year old autistic daughter. She’s sort of my nemesis in a playful way. I bought her a card that had a nun and some spanish writing on it because I was tired of being there and nuns are funny. One of the guests at the party was from Peru and spoke Spanish. She told me later that my card said something completely inappropriate for a 10 year old about what a hottie she’s growing into. Well thanks for that, Walgreen’s!

  20. The other source of embarrassment can be T shirts. You have no idea how many foreigners are out there sporting English slogans across their chests. Ask them if they know what the words mean, and the answer’s usually ‘no’. I suggest you offer to ‘translate’ for them. And lie. Lie horribly.

  21. My husband and I are traveling to Spain in a few weeks to visit our daughter! I am sure there will be many embarrassing moments to write home about.
    I plan to take my IPad everywhere and let Google do the translating. The real fun will begin in France when I actually try communicating with the locals.

    Thank you so much Renee for the inclusion. Your post and others went all over the world in reblogs and posts. Thousands prayed for me and I could really feel it! The feeling was unbelievable.
    I am so lucky to have met you and will never be able to express how grateful I am. I am sending lots of cyber ((((hugs))))

  22. No! No! Google Translate is a recipe for unending embarrassment. See the next to last sentence of my post? THAT was thanks to Google Translate. It sounds as if you, like us, can rely on a Spanish speaking daughter, though. Have a wonderful time in both Spain and France, and be sure to let us know all about it in some future posts.

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