top of page

Travel Flashback: Come Again?

Thank goodness for English translations (even very bad ones).

I’m back from South America! In short, it was an amazing trip, and I’ll be writing more about it next week. But right now, I’m still processing all that I saw and experienced, while simultaneously trying to recover from my end-of-trip head cold. So for this week’s blog, I’m offering up a short blog piece I wrote while I was living in Geneva in 2011. I think the subject is apropos, given that I spent the last two weeks attempting (and largely failing) to communicate in Spanish. Language never ceases to confound me!

Geneva is a French-speaking city, which I thought would be a boon for me, since I’ve been attempting to learn French for, it seems, most of my life. I was particularly optimistic because someone told me that the Genovese speak French more slowly than Parisians. But if they do, my brain must work more slowly, too, because I understand about 10% of what people say here – on a good day. I throw around the words “pardon!” (excuse me) and “désolé!” (sorry) with abandon, and have more than once, in a fluster, apologized in response to someone else apologizing to me. I am, however, quite good at saying that I don’t speak French – and do you speak English, please?

While I muddle along with my francais, I may actually pick up a few words of German, because all the products here are labeled most prominently in deutsch. The German labels really threw me for a loop the first time I went grocery shopping. You have to look more closely for the French translation, and then try not to get confused by the Italian. It still takes me twice as long as normal to go shopping. Occasionally the prevalence of German is helpful – many English words are actually quite close to the German, and certainly more recognizable than the French. At other times it is infuriating; for instance, the navigation bar at the top of my blog suddenly started appearing in German and won’t go back to English. All the ads that show up on my internet searches are in German now, too, but in that case I feel like I’ve won a moral victory, since the advertisers are spending their money to push a product on me and (ha!) I have no idea what it is.

My first and most revelatory German-learning experience came when I was shopping for cleaning supplies, and I realized that schmutz is the German word for dirt. I heard my German-speaking mom use this word a thousand times when we were kids (as in, “you’ve got schmutz on your shirt!”), but all these years I thought schmutz was just a funny-sounding word she’d made up. Désolé, Maman!

bottom of page