Pardon my French

I got chewed out by a bus driver yesterday. For what, I couldn’t tell you, but I think I’ve got a pretty good idea. First, I had to use a 10-euro bill to buy my 1-euro ticket and she clearly didn’t want to have to go to the trouble to make change. I gestured that the bill was all I had, she “hmphed” and counted out my coins. Not a good start.

Although we’re technically supposed to collapse the baby stroller anytime we board a bus, we never have yet and it’s not been a problem. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few other women push strollers on and off the buses without a second glance. At the time, I was by myself with the toddler and was not about to try to wrestle him and the stroller at the same time.

The bus was crowded, but the driver seemed to want me to move to the back, which was impossible. Again, another hmph and a roll of the eyes as I tried to position the stroller along the side as inconspicuously as I could. There was still plenty of room for people to get by us, mind you.

We only had a short distance to ride, thankfully. When it came time to make our exit, I started backing the stroller up to lower it off the same front entrance where we’d boarded. This, apparently, was another no-no. I was supposed to somehow muscle the stroller through the crowd of passengers all the way to the back exit to disembark there instead of getting off through the front entrance, a mere 10 feet or so from where we were standing. The driver finally just shook her head and shooed us out, mumbling God knows what kind of insults not quite under her breath. Well, excusez the hell out of moi!

I hate looking like a stereotypical stupid American tourist. I attempt to speak the language wherever we travel, I don’t expect special treatment, and I try to be as respectful of foreign cultures as possible. The bus ride wasn’t a big deal in the big picture, I suppose, but the interaction with the driver bothered me for the rest of the day.

The more time I spend in France, the easier the language gets to navigate. They say immersion is the best way of learning, and it’s true. I can sometimes sense a difference in my comprehension level literally from day to day. This does NOT mean I’ve broken the language barrier with leaps and bounds. Far from.

I find I’m able to understand more French than I’m able to actually speak. This is frustrating. Someone might make a comment to me in a store or on the street and I’ll know what they’re saying, but the correct words don’t occur to me quickly enough to respond. Or I stammer out a response, only to realize I’ve used the wrong word the second it comes flying out of my mouth. Then I feel like a doofus. OR, I end up responding with something in Italian or German instead of French (a distinct possibility when we find ourselves visiting all three countries in the same number of weeks and the phrases for “please,” “thank you,” and “where’s the toilet?” all run together in my head).

I studied French in high school for three years, but my language skills and vocabulary have obviously become rusty with more than 20 years of non-use. It’s funny the words and phrases that do come back to me at the weirdest moments, though. The sun comes out and suddenly “soleil” pops into my head unbidden. I guess it’s all still buried in there somewhere waiting to be unearthed at the right moment.

The rare occasions when I’m able to carry off a short conversation flawlessly are thrilling, I must admit, but they’re definitely the exception and not the rule. Say, I’ll check out at the grocery store without a hiccup, or actually reply to someone’s question appropriately and without a lapse. Those moments are fantastic, but then again, it’s only small talk. It will be a long, long time before I’m able to carry on an in-depth French exchange with any sort of spontaneity. Still, it’s a start.

Yesterday, the toddler and I were wandering our way through one of the ubiquitous French street markets when I stopped to trail my finger along a beautiful knit scarf. The young guy behind the table came around to coo at the toddler and noticed his differently colored eyes (one brown, one blue. I know, it’s pretty cool.). Amazed, the guy gestured to his buddy to come over and have a look. I managed to contribute some sort of stammering comment, then explained we were American. The two of them chattered back and forth excitedly before turning to me, one obviously struggling to say something and trying to find the right words. Boy, do I know that feeling. I waited patiently to hear what would come out of his mouth, and finally he said “Like David Bowie?”

I laughed, and without a second thought, replied “Oui! Comme ça!”

Which, as it turned out, was the perfect thing to say.

German 101 for foodies

Unlike romantic French or melodic Italian, German is not what I consider a pretty language. Hearing it spoken aloud, some words and phrases aren’t too bad and remind me in a way of pigeons softly cooing. Other sounds are harsh, guttural and downright ugly. This is not a good thing when you’re trying to figure out something appealing to eat in a restaurant and it sounds like your waiter is trying to clear a big wad of phlegm from his throat as he recites the specials.

It’s a given that you’ll have to eat during a visit to Germany, so it does pay to get acquainted with a few of the more common food items and how to pronounce them. Many restaurants in larger German cities such as Cologne do offer menus with English translations to make things easier. Many, however, do not, leaving you scratching your head and wondering just what the hell “erbsen” is and whether you really want to eat one.

It’s always reassuring when the plate the waiter brings to the table contains exactly what you thought you were ordering, and it is possible to deduce some items phonetically or visually. Say “schokolade” out loud and you can pretty much guess that it means “chocolate.” Same with “milch” (milk), “kaffee” (coffee) and “salat” (salad). However, seeing signs for “back” shops initially made me think they were advertising chiropractic services, or perhaps something along the lines of a “Relax the Back”-type store. Au contraire, mon frere. “Back” means “bake,” so there you go. Bakery, or as the Germans say, “backerei.”

The items that really threw me for a loop the first time I read them were the meat dishes. Meat here is called, somewhat graphically, “fleisch.” Yup. You’re literally ordering flesh. Add on the animal to determine the kind of meat, as in “schweinefleisch” (pork) or “rindfleisch” (beef). To make matters worse, ground meat is called “hackfleisch.” It’s enough to turn one into a vegetarian if you think about it too much.

Oddly, “schinken” is not chicken, as you might be led to believe after pronouncing it aloud. It’s actually ham. Chicken is “huhnchen.”

After you’ve dined out a few times and eaten something that you’ve enjoyed, it’s easy enough to look for it again on menus elsewhere. Ever the creature of habit, hubby finds one or two things he likes and sticks to them (see “pizza salami” in my earlier entry). Some consistently good and authentic German standbys that I often find myself seeking out include “gluhwein,” a delicious hot mulled red wine; “gulaschesuppe,” spicy beef-tomato soup with peppers; “schnitzel,” breaded pork tenderloin; “rippchen,” a smoked pork chop; and “spaetzle,” noodles, sometimes served with a cheese sauce like a German mac and cheese (“spaetzle mit kase”). Oh, and “eis,” which is ice cream or gelato. You see tons of signs for “eis cafes,” charming little eateries that serve coffee and desserts.

There’s sort of a caste system of restaurants here as well. There are the nicer, more upscale, sit-down places where you can enjoy full table service. There is plenty of recognizable American fast-food, sadly. There are smaller, cozy, more casual restaurants where you can enjoy a beer and some food. There are also tons of bakery/coffee shops with a handful of barstools or sometimes even just tall bar tables and no seats, good for zipping in and out for a quick espresso and a pastry. There are also snack stops galore (“imbiss”) where you can grab a quick bite of whatever might tickle your fancy. Turkish kebabs, Chinese take-out, pizza slices, even seafood.

As in any language, the most important German words to know are “bitte” (please) and “danke schoen” (thank you). I’ve found those two utterances alone, along with awkwardly pointing to the item you want on the menu, can often see you through the worst of times when it comes to ordering.

Guten appetit!