40. The Head With Many Tongues

Published on 1 May 2023 at 09:17

© 2023 Robert Sickles

It's a quirky thing I do, keeping odd bits of foreign languages in my head, as though a sort of preparedness. Mostly I learn from dictionaries and travelers' phrase books. But I know that in a real conversation with a foreigner, my memorized bits may not exactly suit the moment. What if I'm sharing a table with some locals at a Munich beer hall, do I have to bend the conversation to my need of a haircut so I can pronounce my lovely German sentence? Turning to my new beer-buddies, I say, “Just a trim above the collar, and a little off the top.” You see the challenge with learning from phrase books for the traveler? Or while responding to the Paris police request for ID,  I could make points with a nice French pronunciation “I'll have the lamb, and my wife would like poached salmon.” Absurd? Yes. But you never know...  

I like to think that languages come easily for me. I did well with Latin and Russian in school. Yeah, I know… so cool, and really useful, right? But several European languages are related to those two and I may see patterns from a root language to the branches. Even without immersion study I can do pretty well with vocabulary memorization, and it pays off now and then. For example, with my one and only proper Russian phrase, I was able to correctly introduce my wife and sister-in-law to a Russian team member we hosted during the 1990 Goodwill Games. Granted, that was the extent of the conversation, but it felt so cool. I could fumble my way through Latin graffiti on the walls of Pompeii, and I have a 50-year friendship with a fellow I met in my college Swahili class, whom I still greet with “Jambo, Bwana Jim.”

One quick word of advice for anyone who travels: find the youtube video on how they say their alphabet; you don't want to botch spelling your name over the phone when making a reservation. "Sickles in Italian: ESS-EE-CHEE-KAPPA-ELL-AY-ESS." Or, give them a fake name you won't need to spell "My name is DiMaggio, I'd like a table for two on the veranda."

I thumb through my collection of language books, randomly settling on the topic of the day. French clothes shopping yesterday, Italian trains and buses today. If I blunder socially by using the Italian word Voglio for "I want" instead of the more polite Vorrei "I would like," I'd call it an opportunity to learn a nicety of their culture. I’m all about dabbling with words, and I go with the “close enough” rule: that is, if I say it in Spanish but use my hands a lot, maybe the Italian will understand me.

The following stories show what kind of nerd I am when it comes to this hobby, and what kind of fun and trouble I can get into.


Buy a Good Donkey

Many years ago, hoping I might travel to South and East Africa, I picked up a teach-yourself Afrikaans book to balance what Swahili I had learned in college. Afrikaans, evolved from 18th century colonial Dutch blended with native dialects and other languages. It’s supposed to be easy for English-speakers to learn, but the book I bought turned out to be a true grammar text, loaded with charts, rules and exercises. Yuck! Remember, I don’t want to study a language, I want to play in it. Nevertheless, I memorized one single sentence from that Afrikaans book: “Ek sal kom al reën dit” or, “I shall come even if it rains.” It’s what you’d reply to an invitation in iffy weather, I guess. Who knows why I’d remember that one line for so many years, out of all the things I could have learned to say in Afrikaans.  What use is there for retaining stuff like that?

OK, this is easy. Skipping ahead forty years, it’s the day of our after-services church picnic, and I noticed Jo sitting alone.  She had a jovial personality and good heart, but such a rich Afrikaner accent—maybe a little off-putting for some who found her hard to understand. I thought she isolated herself a little bit so I asked if I could sit with her.

The weather report said a chance of rain, but the clouds parted just in time for the picnic! When she commented how nice that everyone stayed despite the forecast, I looked at her and said “Ek sal kom al reën dit.” She turned toward me wide-eyed. In her guttural accent, sputtering a bit of potato salad, she asked “How do you know to say this? You speak Afrikaans?”

“Not at all, really.” I offered my napkin to wipe her chin, “I have only that one sentence that I taught myself decades ago. Must be I saved it for this very day.”

“You mean you don’t even know ‘Hello, how are you?’ or ‘Very well, thanks.’ in Afrikaans?’ Poor fellow… let me teach you something.” And she asked me to say “Buy a good donkey.”

I smiled and repeated the words, wondering what in the world that was for.

“Now,” she explained, “when I ask you ‘Hoe gaan dit?’ (How’s it going?), you say ‘Buy a good donkey.’

“Um, what?”

“That is the way we say ‘very well, thanks’, except it is like this:” and she wrote “Baie goed, dankie.” 

After that, whenever we passed each other, Jo and I would exchange a few words— “how’s it going?” “good donkey” etc., and some silliness about the chance of rain today.  It may be my hopeful thinking, but she seemed to grow out of her shyness. I can still remember her taking charge of refreshments at the church and managing the schedule of volunteers in the kitchen, fully employing her natural Afrikaner traits of initiative and organization!


Via dell'Amore

In preparation for a return to Italy I plowed through my handbook of Italian for the traveler. On the page titled Visiting the Doctor, it said you simply need to point to where it hurts and say “Mi fa male qui.” or "I hurt here." What a very handy thing to remember!

It was so awfully hot on that walk along the seacoast. We were on the Via dell'Amore, which connects five villages in the area called Cinque Terre, the Five Lands. I should have invested in some of Rick Steves’ high-tech underpants because my heat rash had become unbearable down there. But wait! What luck! We found the village farmacia! The pharmacist gave me his earnest attention as I grimaced and pointed below my belt and said the magic words, “Mi fa male qui.

Sì, capisco,” Oh good, he understood. With classic Italian animated hands and face, he delicately questioned, “Un'infezione?

An infection? I replied “No, no infezione. E rosso, irritatto,” it's just red and irritated.

Un Momento.” He went to a shelf and returned with crema per bambini!

I was so-o-o relieved. “Ah, mille grazie!” A thousand thanks for a lovely tube of Italian diaper cream!


Monday Beans

I have a favorite recipe for an Armenian dish called fassoulia—it’s what I cook when I grow a lot of extra green beans! Accompanying the recipe on one website was a little story about the author’s mother who sang an Armenian folksong when she cooked the fassoulia: “Yerkushabt’i, Fa-ssoul-ia. Fa-ssoul-ia- ia- ia”. Which translates: “It’s Monday—beans, beans, beans.” The song goes on to teach children the rest of the days of the week. If it was fassoulia on the stove, you knew it was Monday.

I make a big pot of fassoulia every year to honor the god of Green Bean Abundance, and sing the ditty as I cook it. Fa-ssoul-ia- ia- ia…

When I was invited one New Year’s Eve to a potluck dinner party, I learned that the host’s young friend Vahan was going to be there, and that he is recently from Armenia. Hmm, let’s see… what to bring to potluck?

When I opened the casserole dish and presented it to the table, I sang my version of the fassoulia song and searched Vahan’s face for his appreciation and delight.

“I’m sorry,” he said with a blank expression, “but what is fassoulia?”

I was crestfallen. After describing the recipe, and the song, and the tradition to the still unimpressed Vahan, he kindly got us off the hook in front everyone by suggesting he was maybe from some other province. “Of course,” I went along with him, “one of those Armenian provinces where you don’t eat beans. Right.” But I bet he was just a guy that eats fast food more often than Grandmother’s old bean dish.

By the way, the correct recipe is called Armenian fassoulia, a chili-like stew of ground meat, green beans, garlic, onions and tomatoes with herbs and the surprising flavor of allspice. Don’t be tricked into those other bean dishes, Greek fasolia and Ethiopian fosolia!


El idiota del pueblo

If I don’t know a foreign language, that usually doesn’t stop me.

I was in a hospital waiting area. Sitting across from me were two Latino men speaking Spanish. One of them was fussing about something, removed his shoe and, with a smile of relief, shook out a pebble the size of a kidney bean. I've limped around with an annoying grain of sand in my shoe, so I wondered how long he'd tried to ignore that huge stone ! His friend's laughter was contagious.  I wanted to say something to join the moment. I had no Spanish skill, but I fancy myself an intuitive savant, with the ability to fake intelligence. I quickly synthesized a version of Roberto-Español in which “pueblo” meant “pebble” and  “ropa” was “shoe,” and I said to him “Que gran pueblo es en sus ropa!”  What a large pebble is in your shoe! I smiled confidently, but the men had blank expressions.  I repeated it with a bigger smile. They now looked confused, shaking their heads at each other and shrugging.

Later I found my Spanish dictionary and realized what I actually said was “What a big town is in their clothing.”  

Modern computer technology will really become useful to me when I can pause and redo a moment in time, like I could hit some kind of UNDO or BACKSPACE key.


The Fraud

Linda and I were browsing in a local bookstore, and I called to her about a book I was admiring about the German artist, Albrecht Dürer. Naturally, I made myself sound as though I was sort of German.

A gentleman who happened to be nearby stepped up to me and spoke with a foreign accent, “I apologize for intruding, but are you European? Did I hear you speak, perhaps, with a slight German accent?”

Well, I'm about as American as Ben Franklin and only know a few German words, but I could say without lying that I was indeed speaking with a German accent, so I kept up the pretense and replied “Ja, ja. It is so!" I extended my hand. "Allow me, I am Robert Sickles, und you are?”

“I am Hans Keller coming from Zurich. Very pleased to meet you, Robert. It might interest you to know that there is a monthly meeting here in Olympia of a German-speakers group, a family-friendly club, open to all who love their native tongue and want to socialize with each other! We have some discussions, movies, some food and wonderful music. Would you like to know more? 

“Ja! Danke, Ja!  I do love the music!” I swayed to an imaginary band. “Oom-pah-pah, pilsner und bockwurst! Ach!”

Mr. Keller was beaming. “So good, yes! And, please, we should converse now in German if you’d like. Do, please, tell me something about yourself, Robert.”

I knew this boat was about to break apart on the rocks. I smiled broadly and pointed to my body and named a few parts. “So, mein Herr, das ist meine Hand, und das ist mein Arm. Das ist mein Ellbogen, und das ist mein Shulter! Wunderbar, ja?”

His warm face turned cold. “Oh I see… you are not serious. You're having fun, mocking a foreigner? Sir, I say you are a fraud!" He nodded crisply, "Good day to you.” and he turned and walked away. 

Wow, so touchy, so Germanic. Well, I had fun while it lasted.


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a year ago

tak so myka