Lost in Translation (Paris Post III)

This is the third post in my series about my Paris trip. The first can be found here.

I studied French at school, but it’s been a while since I’ve had to use any. My first attempt at deploying my rusty French occurred before I even left the train station. It was, ironically, to tell what appeared to be a tramp seeking change that I didn’t speak French. I’d only just arrived, so I didn’t have any change anyway.

As I walked away it dawned on me that “Je ne parle pas français” is essentially a universal term. This is because even if you blurt out a load of incomprehensible gibberish the intended message remains: you can’t speak French. Judging by the stunned look of confusion on the guy’s face, I assumed this is what had happened. I suppose the only potential pitfall is if you accidentally say something offensive:

“Excuse me, Monsieur. Could spare some change please?”
“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”

My rusty French caused further confusion on another occasion while sitting outside a bar. The menu listed a ‘Mexicain Biere’. I’m always interested in trying new beers, so it piqued my interest. It turned out that it was simply Sol. Still, it’s a nice beer, so after deciding to stay for a second I ordered another. Instead of asking for ‘Mexicain Biere’ I thought I may as well just call it by name. The waitress was initially a little confused by my “Je voudrais un bouteille de Sol s’il vous plait” but apparently managed to work out what I was saying. Like I say, ‘apparently.’ A minute or two later she arrived with the bill. I’m not sure how I managed to make ‘Sol’ sound like ‘l’addition’, but there go. Either way, I opted to just thank her, pay the bill and sheepishly walk away while trying to make sense of what had just happened.

As a Brit, I’m accustomed to going up to the bar, ordering a drink and paying for it there and then. But, of course, across much of Europe you sit at a table and wait to be served. Once finished, you then attract the waiter’s attention and order another, or get the bill, depending upon how good your French is.

One of the pitfalls of this approach presented itself to me when I noticed a group of patrons leaving a bar after having absent-mindedly left a wallet behind. They were a fair distance away before I noticed. I initially moved to grab the wallet and chase after them. But then it dawned on me that the bar staff might think I was trying to skip the bill. I could imagine being chased, wrestled to the ground and arrested, only for them to find someone else’s wallet on my person. That wasn’t a situation I’d want to rely on my limited French to extricate me from.

I attempted to explain the situation to the bar man. He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. He just looked on bemused as this crazy English guy babbled away while waving a wallet around. He turned to his workmates, who shrugged in unison. Not only could I not remember the word for wallet, I couldn’t even remember if I’d ever been taught it, which isn’t the best start. Anyway, the wallet-owners were getting further away so I gave up and chased after them anyway. Thankfully, the barman didn’t give chase. My antics probably helped here. He probably felt that he’d rather forego the cost of the beer than have to interact with the crazy English guy again.

Just to keep tourists like myself on their toes, not all bars work like that. At one bar I patiently sat outside for over twenty minutes waiting to be served. Eventually my patience waned and I began wondering why I was being ignored. Had word spread among Parisian bar staff to avoid the crazy English guy who manically waves wallets around? As I looked around in search of a waiter I saw a group of people exiting the bar. They were carrying freshly pulled pints and looking for a table. Clearly, I’d unwittingly found one of the few bars in the city which was bar-service.

But it wasn’t just my rusty French that caused miscommunication. While relaxing at another bar I managed to put my foot it in using English. There was a portrait artist trying to drum up business. A friendly American, who’d already had a portrait done, was jovially coaxing a fellow customer into commissioning one. He jokingly said, “He even made me look good!” It’s these kinds of situation where I often cause myself problems. Before I could stop myself I chipped in and quipped, “Wow, he must be a genius!” I meant it purely it as a joke, but it was perhaps a little over the mark. The American took it in good spirits, but he did have a slight look of “I don’t even know you. Why are you insulting me?”

Sometimes it didn’t even need language at all to arouse miscommunication. I’ll be honest with you, I’m open to art, but I’m no expert. All the same, I wanted to see Monet’s Waterlilies. I’ve seen many pictures of them and they seemed impressive. He made around 250 in total and some were on display at Musée de l’Orangerie, so I headed over.

Firstly, they’re huge. Some of them must have been around ten metres wide and a couple of metres high. There are eight at Musée de l’Orangerie spread over two rooms. I spent quite some time staring at them. I enjoyed them, but I didn’t quite get what was going on. Like I say, I’m no expert. There were a load of water lilies floating around on the water’s surface, I could see that. But then there were lots of, seemingly inexplicable, blobs of colour all over the place. There were lots of greens and blues and whites. One of them was even purple and red. Why would the water be such unusual colours I thought to myself? After staring at them for quite some time I shrugged and thought, “Well that’s impressionists for you. They just make stuff up.”

It was after I’d been staring at them for about twenty minutes that I finally had a breakthrough. “That big green blob over there looks a bit like an upside down tree,” I innocently mused to myself. It was then that the penny finally dropped. The blobs were reflections on the water’s surface! I quickly walked back around the gallery and it finally all made sense. There were reeds, bushes and trees. That’s what all the green blobs were. The white blobs, they were the clouds overhead. The pink and orange, I had to laugh at myself when I got back to that one. It had obviously been painted during a fiery sunset and the colours were the sky reflected in the water. Once I’d figured it out it all made perfect sense. In fact, they were stunning. I was very impressed. I can’t believe I was sat there all that time completely oblivious to what I was looking at. Oh well, at least I walked away feeling like I‘d learnt something.


About lanceleuven

3 responses to “Lost in Translation (Paris Post III)

  • Quieter Elephant

    At least you didn’t resort to simply farting in their general direction!
    Having suffered from similar miscommunication (coincidentally also often around beer or paying for it) in several countries, I fully understand the bemusement.
    I once asked a German taxi driver whether he Sprech’d Deutsch instead of English. Thankfully he replied in English and ended the embarrassment there and then.


  • lanceleuven

    “At least you didn’t resort to simply farting in their general direction!”

    It was touch and go for a while, but I decided against it in the end.

    The German taxi story is brilliant. Glad to know I’m not the only one. 🙂


  • suzykewct

    Ah yes. Speaking French to a French person when you really have no idea how to communicate what you want to say. My French is fragmentary at best and only in certain situations. What’s worse, if the other person answers me in French, I’m usually at a loss to know what sort of conversation I’ve started. That said, I’ve signed up for beginner’s French (again) to see if I can nail some really useful phrases into my brain and, more importantly, learn some likely responses and how they SOUND. I told my French teacher (25 years ago, ouch!) that I can learn words but have great difficulty figuring out where one word ends and the next begins. She thought I was nuts, bien sur!

    On a different note – I’m glad to see that you’ve kept on writing/blogging. I’ve been a bad puddy-tat and only now trying to get back into it. I’m determined to read all of your past posts and hope you’re inspired to write something new soon!


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