Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

HPIM1042I feel like I’ve become an expert in the art of faux pas while living in Germany.  Once I stopped grinning and waving at strangers in my austere German neighborhood, and being thought the village idiot (I was only being friendly!), I moved on to linguistic lunacy and, apparently, asked for foreplay (“Vorspiele”) instead of appetizers (“Vorspeise”) in local restaurants.  Who knew?

There is a certain amount of idiocy that you can’t avoid when you live in a foreign country–whether because you don’t speak the language well or because you don’t understand the customs.  I can live with that.  I forgive myself these missteps, and the locals are usually forgiving of them too.

But sometimes you just do something stupid.  We all do it.  (Some of us more than others.)  It’s especially awkward when you do something stupid and you are a foreigner.  You see the eyes roll, you can almost hear the thoughts filling the heads around you, “Oh, those Americans!”

We’re heading back to Yorkshire for a visit in the days ahead, and we are considering a stop by Hemswell Antique Center, in Hemswell Cliff.  We’ve picked up some interesting things there in the past and thought we’d take a look again, if we have time.  If  they’ll let us through the door.  My last visit there, I was the person who sent eyes rolling, or at least squinting and watching me like a hawk.

But it wasn’t really my fault.

My husband and I had a big day planned.  My mother- and father-in-law were in town and had offered to watch our children for the day while James and I drove a few hours away to the Newark Antiques Fair–it bills itself as the biggest in Europe, and it is a whopper!  But we wanted to get there early and we had a stiff drive ahead of us, so we had to leave before dawn.

Our house in Ripon wasn’t a big affair, so we had to tiptoe around not to wake anyone.  That day, we decided we wouldn’t make coffee or eat breakfast, we just planned to dress and get out the door quickly and quietly.  But for some reason–I’m guessing a child that sneaked into our bed during the night–we even had to dress in the dark and tiptoe around our own bedroom.  Which we did, and out we went.

newarkOff to Newark and treasure hunting!  We had a great day–it started off grey and maybe a little drizzly, but we wrapped up and it didn’t bother us much.  Many vendors were in tents and we made out well– enough small treasures to feel satisfied, not so many as to break the bank.  I will say my husband bought some questionable art, but he always buys some questionable art.  At this point in our marriage, it would worry me more if he suddenly stopped that habit.

The day grew warmer and sunnier; our coats came off; our arms filled with loot; and we finally felt ready to return home from our adventure.

But, if we made good time on the road, we could just eek out a visit to Hemswell on the way home.  Off we went!

hemswell logoThe Hemswell Antique Center covers a lot of ground–many buildings and antiques of all kinds.  It also houses a cute, but simple, cafe with a Royal Air Force World War II theme. (I think Hemswell may actually be an old, decommissioned RAF base, but don’t hold me to that.)

We knew we could only make a quick run through, so we took off at double speed.  We zipped through this building, we zipped through that building.  Then, in the final building, tired out from the day, I found myself slowed to a stop in front of a case of vintage jewelry.  A few cases, in fact.  As I stared sleepily into one of the cases, a fly caught my eye.  He was stuck inside the case and trying to fly out of the glass.  Repeatedly, he flew at the glass, only to strike it hard, and tumble back to the shelf under the hot lights.  I am no friend of flies, but this little guy was struggling and I felt bad for him.

I turned around to see a salesperson close by. (In hindsight, I think he may have been hovering around me–a very suspicious woman.)  I called out to him and  explained the plight of this poor fly stuck in the glass case.  I wondered if there might be any way he could free the poor animal, who was getting fairly panicky behind the glass.

The salesperson gave me a very perplexed, but gentle, look and said that, yes, he’d make his way over presently and attend to the situation.  I slowly moved around the room and browsed some more.  Two or three minutes later, I heard a voice call out from across the room:  “You’ll be happy to know that the fly has made his bid for freedom!”  I looked up, and the salesman shot me an amused look.  I smiled and said, “Thank you so much.”  He nodded and added, “That should send some good karma your way.”

It was a humorous exchange.  As I left the building, the salesman and his colleague gave me a cheerful, if oddly watchful, send off.  Clearly, as far as they were concerned, I was an awkward American, or maybe the nutty Zen lady.  So be it–I can live with that.

I walked out into the bright sun of a crisp autumn afternoon, pleased with our day of high brow foraging.  I dropped my tired body into the front seat of the car and began fastening the seat belt around me …. only to be stopped cold by what I saw.  What I couldn’t have seen as I dressed myself in the dark that morning;  what I never saw, as I apparently looked in no mirrors as the day progressed; and what my husband, in his own wide-eyed but sleep deprived frenzy of antiquing, had apparently never noticed.  I was wearing my shirt inside-out.

I wasn’t the nutty Zen lady after all.

Oh no, it was much worse.

I was the utterly lunatic bag lady who befriended flies.   Oh, those Americans!

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

*wikipedia article on the speech, including the controversy over his wording: