One of the side benefits of international travel is observing the way other languages work, that is, the way they seem to give insight into something like the national character.
I noticed this on my very first flight across the Atlantic aboard a Freddy Laker jet to London. In the bathroom, instructions (or were they admonitions?) were given in French, English and German. The English was direct: please wipe the sink after using it. In French, the instructions asked me to “donner un coup,” that is, to strike a blow for cleanliness. There were overtones there of the nobility of character for which one was supposed to reach. In contrast, the German, equally direct to the English, spoke to the inherent laziness presumed to be endemic to human character: “Sie mussen . . . .” You must. And don’t you forget it.
Later in that same first trip, I was taking a walk through a small park in Chelsea. There a sign read “Do not permit your pet to foul the footpath.” I thought briefly about attempting to keep a dog from defecating–how would one do that exactly?–but decided that it meant, though it did not say, that the owner must clean the mess up. I savored the alliteration of “foul the footpath” for a few minutes. This was decades before I began to see signs in American English that read simply, “Clean up after your pet,” and provided cans and, often too, rolls of plastic bags.
An aside: My husband is a member of a local neighborhood web site. There he gets gossip, warnings about crime and coyotes and the occasional recommendation of good services. A few days ago there was a chain about the proper courtesy for disposing of dog poop (their word, not mine). The consensus was that you may put your dog’s poop in someone’s else’s barrel if–and only if–it is on the curb for pick-up and the sanitation truck has not yet come. Emily Post does not have a chapter on this problem.
About a month after the foul the footpath sign, I was driving my little green Peugeot along a country road in France. The first day I rented the car, I turned the radio on and heard a lovely Chopin piano etude. So I called my car “Chopin.” When I say, I called my car Chopin, I mean, of course, that I did so when I talked to myself. Alone and abroad for almost three months, I did a lot of talking to myself. I’m a pretty good conversationalist.
Anyway, going along this country road, I came to a train crossing. And there was that wonderful sign I’ve never forgotten. “Faites attention! Il se peut qu’un train se cache devant l’autre.” Pay attention. It may be that one train is hiding itself behind another. Images of malevolent, skulking locomotives kept me entertained for another 20 kilometers. Oh the joys of literal translation.
One learns, with time, to take the extravagance of the French language with a grain of salt. When a shopkeeper says she is desolate because she cannot provide what you require (and you know that her “desolee” has the required two ee’s at the end), what she really means is, “no can do, please move along.” It’s in her tone of voice.
Of course, if you visit a foreign country where they supposedly speak your own language, there are still those colloquial expressions or different vocabulary words that give insight, or at least confusion. Most of us are familiar with the “lifts,’ lorries,’ and “roundabouts” of England. But in New Brunswick I heard a few more. There a view site is called the “look-off point” and the vehicle that leads and creates a traffic break is the “follow me truck.” Not at all confusing, but it does hint at a kind of child-like directness that seemed to mark the area. Paul, the ranger at Hopewell Rocks at the Bay of Fundy pointed our attention to what he called “a fling of sandpipers” on the beach. For all I know, “fling” is the collective noun for these birds, universally acknowledged by speakers of English. Like “a murder of crows.” But it was new to me and caught the birds’ presence exactly.
I was less enchanted by another colloquialism, “people from away.” Our guide for one of the days in Nova Scotia, a local man who was also an Accadian, interspersed his guidance with statements like, “we hear those comments from ‘people from away.'” Though he says it very respectfully, it smacks of dismissal: those people from away, from anywhere else, may all be lumped together in one phrase and an indeterminate phrase at that. Here is a place with a name. It’s “Nova Scotia” and we’re there. Every place else is simply “away.”
While waiting for our plane in the Halifax airport, I heard the following announcement: “Passengers of Flight 1234, your plane is at the gate and its passengers are exiting. Following that, our staff will groom the plane properly to receive you. Thank you for waiting.” Surely this had to be some direct translation from the French. Canada is, after all, officially a bilingual country and this had all the earmarks. It was overly elegant for the occasion. They would clearly not just be giving a “blow for cleanliness” as I had been instructed on my Freddy Laker flight. The waiting time passed quickly because I was engrossed in imaging what such grooming might entail. What needed to be trimmed like a beard? Or combed into place like a woman’s hair? Was there some kind of airplane makeup used to cover up esthetic flaws? Imagine a plane so eager for my presence that it was grooming to impress. Only French can cover a situation such as that. The problem is that such language sets you up for disappointment. The plane, when we boarded it, looked just the same as every other plane. But I was glad to be going home where, at least, I speak the language.