Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Alternately entitled: One way we foreigners perfect the art of faux pas

It is so very easy, when you are in another country trying to abide by other customs, eat other food, and speak another language, to blunder time and again. Just ask Mark Twain and JFK.   Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin not long after the Soviets put up the wall. It was a moment of solidarity…or possibly a moment of hilarity, depending on whom you ask. “Ich bin ein Berliner”–does that translate as “I am a Berliner” or “I am a jelly donought”? It almost doesn’t matter whether we’re looking at a dreadful gaffe or a faux faux pas–an urban legend–it makes a point.  (If you aren’t familiar with the speech and the controversy, see the links at the end of this post*)

When you are abroad, even in a country where you think you speak the same language as the locals, you don’t speak the same language as the locals. You WILL embarrass yourself again and again. Get used to it. Mark Twain knew this, and you will too after only a few short days in country. The sage Mr. Twain said it best:
“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass.”        ― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

There are approximately 8,992 ways that you travelers might embarrass yourselves (and those around you) in any given moment, but I’ll cover just a few examples.

“Bloody Hell!” What a quaint British phrase that is. It’s cursing without actually cursing. It’s Ron Weasley’s favorite catch phrase, for Pete’s sake–what’s not charming about that? Well, yeah. Says you. Turns out Ron Weasley had a serious potty mouth. “Bloody Hell” is some bad stuff. Do not say it unless you really mean it. And please do not say it to your elderly neighbor under any circumstance. I speak from experience.

Also, if you are an American traveling in the UK, do not use the word “fanny” to refer to your bottom…it does not. Let’s just leave it at that.

Another word that becomes awkward in England: “pants.” If you spill beer on yourself in the pub, whatever you do, do not loudly proclaim that your pants are dirty. Maybe you get the point already, but let me illustrate the problem. My son was young when we lived in Yorkshire; young and growing like a weed. I bought him some new school uniforms that he outgrew after just a wearing or two. The pants were nearly perfect (which is the first strange thing about this story, as my son can wear the knees out of pants in 30 seconds flat–I should have known at this point that fate was conspiring to trick me in some way).

What do you do with nearly perfect pants? You give them to a friend who can use them. It’s a kind gesture, right?

It is, but, bloody hell, mate, you are likely to get it all wrong if you don’t speak the language.

Here’s my story: I walk onto the school playground at pick up time with a bag of nearly perfect pants in hand. I approach a friend whose son is Will’s age, and I offer her the pants. Her response: an odd stare at me. (Is there something on my face?)

So I explain, “The pants have only been worn a few times, they’re still very nice. It would be a shame for someone not to get good use out of them.” This elicits a slight recoil from my friend. (Did I eat garlic for lunch? No, I don’t think so.)

“They’re not at all worn out. I’m pretty sure they’d fit Lewis. You really ought to take them,” I say, as I begin to hand the bag her direction. A look of horror absolutely engulfs her face. “I’ve washed them,” I say.

And then it occurs to me that “pants” are undies in the UK. “Oh, no, no, no,” my voice rises and my arms wave (swinging the parcel of pants wildly), “I’m so sorry. They are trousers!! TROUSERS!!”

I say it too loudly. . .people are beginning to stare. My friend still looks rattled, but she accepts the bag with a wry smile on her face.

I’ve a feeling that she dropped the bag, unopened, into the bin as soon at she got home. Oh…no, wait…I mean the trashcan.

Sigh. It’s exhausting speaking two languages.



*video of JFK’s speech  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56V6r2dpYH8

*wikipedia article on the speech, including the controversy over his wording:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ich_bin_ein_Berliner


16 thoughts on “Ich Bin Ein Berliner

  1. “False friends” get me all the time. Around Christmas I was talking to a friend (in German) about how I needed to buy gift bags. Without thinking, I called them “Gift-taschen”. In German, “gift” means “poison”.

    1. Right–someone warned me about that slip up too, but it’s hard to fight old habits and keep the wrong word from slipping. We must either horrify or amuse our German friends!

  2. Ha ha! Fanny pack always did make me giggle 🙂 There are so many differences! But that pants story is great! A bunch of English teachers I was working with burst out laughing when I asked them if they minded if I plugged something out for a couple of minutes. In English English, they say ‘unplug’ – bastards 😉

  3. My mother-in-law is from northern England and I’m from Wisconsin, USA. We work together on translations, and it’s a hoot! We have conversations about the “two different languages” often. Recently she introduced me to the “class” of retired folks in the English conversation class she teaches, and she said, “She’s an American, but she speaks VERY good English!” 🙂

    1. So funny! When we first moved to England, my children (preschool and elementary school age) were my translators! They picked up all of the nuances and vocabulary differences from school and then schooled me at home! But, of course, I still got myself into trouble when they weren’t around.

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