My husband and I were driving through northern France in October when hunger compelled us to stop at what we Americans call a “truck stop.” There weren’t many choices because we were on a toll highway between Reims and the Normandy Coast – if you exit, you face higher fees getting back on.
(We paid out more than 60 euros in highway tolls in one day! but that’s another story for another day…)
This tollroad stop was small – gas, bathroom and a small convenience store with a French version of Subway.
I tentatively asked the deli worker, “Pourrais-je commander un sandwich au jambon et au fromage?”
He stared at me.
Ham and cheese, how hard could that be, I thought?
I tried again. “Pourrais-je commander un sandwich au jambon et au fromage, s’il vous plaît?”
He responded with a stream of French that my poor brain could not parse.
Back and forth, we tried to communicate.
But I am old and speak very bad French in a flat Midwestern tone that literally insults the intonation of that beautiful language. And he was young, impatient and done. Finally, he took the sandwich sign down from the wall and had me point at what I wanted to order.
Ugh. Lunch with a side of humiliation.
“I tried so hard,” I whined at my husband later. “Why couldn’t he understand me?”
It was, of course, the wrong question.
I was in HIS country. I could not speak HIS language.
I wasn’t the Ugly American. I didn’t shout, didn’t pound on the counter or laugh in his face and belch, “You’re fired!”
But it was still a fail on my part.
I was thinking about that this morning in Echternach, Luxembourg, as I ate breakfast in the elegant Hotel Bel Air with new Miami University student leaders who have just arrived for their semester of study abroad.
A waitress with a smile came around and asked, in German, if we needed more coffee. As she asked, the waitress made eye contact with one student, who froze and stared back, clearly terrified that she had no idea what the waitress said.
The waitress asked again.
“Anglais,” I explained to the kind lady, adding, “Oui, café, merci.”
But that was wrong, too, because it is French, not German.
Still, the waitress understood, smiled, grabbed the coffee pot and went off to refill it.
The student started laughing in relief that – for her – a tense moment in a new country was diffused. The waitress, on the other hand, heard only laughter as she walked away. Her shoulders tensed.
An accidental fail.
In his essay “Ugly American Sentiment Abroad,” the Back Door travel guru Rick Steves suggests that thoughtful Americans,
“Make an effort to bridge that flimsy language barrier. Rudimentary communication in any language is fun and simple with a few basic words. On the train to Budapest, you might think that a debate with a Hungarian over the merits of a common European currency would be frustrating with a 20-word vocabulary, but you’ll surprise yourself at how well you communicate by just breaking the ice and trying. Don’t worry about making mistakes — communicate!”
And that is more important now than ever, as many Europeans I’ve met since moving to Luxembourg in August look upon us Americans with pity. Having lost our world leadership role and all due to an ignorant, ignoble president.
Though I’m a journalist who has traveled widely, the fear of failing in communication still prevents me from speaking with many people I’ve met since gaining an EU work permit. It really weighs on me – why can’t I let myself fail in language? Why hang on to stupid pride that ultimately limits my cultural understanding, my richness of experience?
“But you must fail,” my Luxembourgish friend Claudine told me, shaking her head. “Failing is the only way we learn.”
So I push myself out of my comfort zone again. One of the receptionists at the local gym does not speak English, Spanish or Italian – the languages I flail about with. She could not understand what kind of gym membership I wanted and so I finally showed up one day with my specific request typed out in my best Google Translate French.
She read the textbook French carefully then told me haltingly in Anglais to return Monday so she could connect me with an Anglais-speaking membership coordinator.
I smiled. “Merci. Next time I’ll do better,” I told her.
I meant it. Dammit, I really need to work out.