In Which I Accidentally Insult a WW2 Veteran

After completely wearing ourselves out at Disneyland, we did not allow ourselves to take a day off and rest up. Instead, he headed into the heart of the city, had some more fabulous food, and walked from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triumph. I later pulled up google maps and re-drew our route, and we apparently walked about 4.6 km because we couldn’t actually bring ourselves to walk in a logical straight line (the two places are 2.3 km apart if you go in the mostest straightest direction). We had stopped and gotten a very good lunch, but, as per usual, I forgot to take a picture of the actual place, so even after we fruitlessly spent a good amount of time trolling through Google Maps trying to find it, we were bereft of the name. Most likely because Google Maps took all the pictures during the summer, and as most of the restaurants are half on the sidewalk, half inside, they set up heaters and windflaps to let them keep their external sidewalk turf usable during winter, so it’s largely unrecognizable when you try to find a place sans tarps.

10869884_10203747121784135_7987120242669671266_oAnyway, by the time we finally got to the Arc, it was twilight. We paid, wandered around, went through the museum (which had a lot of stuff about the evolution of military uniforms in France, and was quite interesting), and, of course, we went through the gift shop, where I found a cute little postcard of a French cop (I’m always on the lookout for cop stuff for my dad) and a small cutout scene for my mum (for some reason I always like getting her things with pretty cut paper or pretty writing). Finally, we went to the top and looked out over the city to watch the light show on the Eiffel Tower. It was quite beautiful, but the going from cold outdoors to hot indoors to cold outdoors made my nose run. I could have stayed on the roof for much longer, however, if I hadn’t been afraid of running out of tissues. So we went back down.

We were just getting ready to depart when we realized that the area under the arc had been fenced off, and some sort of ceremony was just beginning. So, being us, we decided to sit on the edges and observe. There was quite a lot about honoring heroes and those who had served, some names were added to a book, and some women and children given flowers, but we could not seem to figure out what, exactly, the memorial was. So after it finished, we started looking around to see who might be able to explain the event to us, and somehow we got involved in a conversation with a French veteran of World War II.

Let’s pause for a few minutes and discuss my French. I can talk to a cabbie in French. I can order food in French. I can go grocery shopping in French. I can even haggle over prices. But once a conversation gets past the basic niceties, it gets worse, and worse, and worse.

That’s what happened in this particular conversation. Here I am, talking with a man about the same age as my grandfather, and not only am I past the basic “Hi, how are you? I’m from another country!” part of the conversation, but I’m translating for MK, and this guy is talkative. He told us about the memorial, about his family, and about how his son and daughter in law live in Michigan. The farther along the conversation went, the more ill equipped I was to hold it, much less translate it. And then I made a linguistic mistake, one that is familiar to many bilingual people.

You see, the easy way to “guess” at a word in most European languages is to substitute a word from a sister language, but with an accent. For example, if you want to order lamb at a French restaurant, you could just say “mutton” but with a French sounding accent– “mue-TON” and you would get lamb. If you know the English word isn’t correct, take a stab at the Spanish word. That’s actually how I got through the majority of my Spanish classes in college: I would take English words and French words and short of mash them up with the Spanish vocabulary I could remember, and prattle on with that until my professor started complaining at me in Portuguese, at which point I would drop any pretense of Spanishizing words and talk back to him in French. One of my friends said it was her favorite thing to watch, because all of the English-only speakers would start taking notes furiously, and all the people who already spoke Spanish but were taking the class for easy credit would be laughing themselves silly. Anyway, the word substitution with accent method usually works, although it can lead to some awkward mistakes (one of my friends was once trying to explain to her host family in France that she thought French bread tasted better because it contained fewer chemicals, but she didn’t know the word and substituted “preservatif.” She later found out that she was saying French bread tasted better because it didn’t have condoms in it).

In my particular case…well, let’s just say I managed to be insulting by insinuating that this particular veteran was lying, and not very nicely. Many apologies later, he was still a bit miffed, and I escaped the conversation as quickly as I could, and told MK it was time to get back to the hostel, where I could stumble around in English and not French and bury my mortification by banging my head repeatedly against my pillow.

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2 Responses to In Which I Accidentally Insult a WW2 Veteran

  1. IntenseGuy says:

    I’d be almost certain that the ‘natives’ appreciated your trying to use their language.

  2. Pingback: Parisian Protesters and the Armed Forces | The Wrenaissance Woman

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