Tag Archives: Power of language

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}