I was sitting at a little table on the sidewalk in front of C’est La Vie French Cafe and Bakery yesterday, enjoying a cup of coffee and minding my own business, when a couple of women sat down at the table next to me. Usually when I am eating alone I have my nose buried in a book and I am fairly oblivious to what is going on around me. But in this case I just couldn’t ignore their conversation. The woman who monopolized the conversation (I’d be surprised if her lunch partner spoke more than a dozen words the entire time) was VERY loud and VERY British with a VERY proper accent. So although I was eavesdropping, there was no way around it. I’m sure the people across the street could hear her. As I am fond of saying, all things happen for a reason because it provided the subject for today’s post.
She told a story about coming to America and trying to fit in. She had heard that Americans like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so whenever she had guests, she served them in all varieties: plain peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and jelly with bananas, peanut butter and jelly with marshmallow creme, etc. Each time, her food went uneaten and she noticed that her guests were casting sidelong glances at each other or whispering behind her back as she brought out the serving tray. Eventually, someone took pity on her and asked about the sandwiches. Apparently, in the UK the word jelly refers to Jell-O. I just about choked on my croissant trying to hide my laughter. Something was definitely lost in translation.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a bunch of Yogis during a retreat in Thailand a couple of years ago. We were all sitting around after dinner discussing the different meanings for the same word in different cultures. Most of these people were from the UK and Australia and almost all of them had traveled to the US, so every one of them had funny stories about this subject.
Pamela: “In the UK, to knock up means to knock the ball around while warming up for a tennis match or to be awakened. You can just imagine the look I got from the proprietor of a motel in Arizona one day when, after checking in, I asked if he could knock me up in the morning at 6 AM.”
Danny: “I told one bloke to keep his pecker up and I thought he was going to lay me out flat.” (Translation: I told a friend to keep his spirits up and I thought he was going to punch me.)
Renee: “I asked the location of the nearest hole-in-the wall and they looked at me like I was crazy.” (A hole-in-the-wall is slang for an automated teller machine in the UK)
Jonathan: “I was invited over to my employer’s house for dinner and was trying to make the best possible impression, so I told his wife that their house was very homely. I got a pretty strange reaction and found out later that in the US they use the term homey, and that homely means ugly.”
Phillip: “I was wandering around a pretty seedy part of town in Boston one time and asked a bloke on the street corner if he had a fag. I was trying to bum a cigarette but that’s NOT what he tried to give me.”
Jenny: “I came over to the States to attend University and during my initial semester I was loading up on all the supplies I would need at the nearby stationers. I asked the clerk where I could find rubbers and was told I’d have to go to the drug store for that. In England, rubbers are pencil erasers. I had no idea!”
And Roberta (from the US): “I had an enormous four course meal in London one time and as I pushed back from the table I said that I was stuffed. I got a few weird looks and a couple of giggles from neighboring tables. Later I found out that to be stuffed means either that you are having sex or that you are pregnant.”
I’ve had my share of incidents over word meanings in different cultures. I lived in Puerto Rico for a year. There, and in other Spanish-speaking countries, the word bizcocho means cake or pastry, while in Mexico it is a vulgar term for a woman’s sexual organs. You can imagine the reaction I got when I walked into a panaderia (bakery) in Tijuana and unknowingly asked for bizcocho. I’ll never make that mistake again. As I’ve always said, travel is a mind-expanding experience. And in some cases, a mind-blowing one.