Language Barriers


Hmmm. What to post? There’s not a lot of new things going on with my shop right now, and I haven’t been cooking much of interest lately.  I thought I could tell a story, since it has been a while, but I always have a hard time deciding what I want to tell about.  Something about my childhood?  About my time in France, or my married life or my crazy boys?

How about France.

Whenever I think about my time in France, the story of Boris always pops into my mind first.  If you have known me for any length of time, you know the ridiculous tale of Boris, but I feel like it needs to be written down for posterity.  I haven’t asked my roommates from France if I can tell this, so I will try to tell it from my own perspective.  They can correct me if I err.

So the last time I wrote about France, we were just settling in for our year abroad.  We had moved into the seminary dormitories and had explored, to some extent, the charming city of Aix-en-Provence.   We were registered at the nearby language institute for foreign students, and I for one, was eager to begin my studies.

One of my chief worries was the language barrier-  that it would be very difficult to communicate with anyone, either at the seminary or the school.  But I needn’t have worried.  In fact, the opposite problem presented itself.  Instead of a language barrier forcing us to communicate in a new language, we soon found that almost everyone we encountered spoke English to some degree, and were eager to practice their English with us.

The language school we attended introduced us to a huge variety of nationalities.  People from Italy, Sweden, Uganda, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Japan and Korea, just to name a few.  And they all spoke English.

Even at the dorms there was a good mix of nations.  There was the seemingly strict and intimidating British man who was the seminary administrator (and little did I know then, my future father-in-law), a very handsome Canadian fella we called “Gorgeous Gabriel”, a cute little Brazilian lady who could whip up an amazing meringue by hand, and then there was Boris.

Don’t let his name mislead you.  He was not from Russia, but from Germany.  He stood about 6 foot 5, had close cropped blond hair and blue eyes, and was a friendly enough guy.  He also spoke English very well, but with a predictable German accent.  That was the only predictable thing about him.

Part of seminary life included a communal kitchen where everyone did their best to share the shelf space in a few old refrigerators, and cook together over the tiniest little gas stove imaginable.  I did a lot of the cooking for the three of us, and was usually the one who used up the small propane tank hooked to the back of the stove.  Then it was my duty to go and inform the administrator (of whom I was slightly afraid) that I needed another tank.

The first time I met Boris was in the kitchen where I had run out of propane halfway through baking a batch of muffins for breakfast.  He made a quick friend of me by offering to go get the refill tank himself.  He returned with it and I finished my muffins while he started in making his own breakfast.

I wasn’t paying attention to what he was cooking until he sat down to eat.  The other girls had come down by that point, and we, and everyone else in the kitchen, were simply staring at him with mouths agape.  In front of him was a bowl full of yogurt with granola on top.   Next to that was a plate with several fried sausages and some cheese.  Lined up in a neat row above his bowl were half a dozen hard boiled eggs, with a baguette roughly torn in half and generously buttered next to them.  And believe this or not, there was a pot of pasta and some sauce boiling on the stove for whenever he might have finished his first several courses.  He easily downed all of this remarkable feast while we nibbled our little muffins.  We soon found that he ate like this- three times a day!

He was a very loud talker, and walked into any room very abruptly, slamming doors behind him.  He always gesticulated wildly when he talked, and I distinctly remember one evening, his marching into the common room, waving a pair of socks in the air, and declaring angrily that his new socks “Ver alvays leafing fuzzles in between his toes!”

His German accent was a source of amusement to us, and I admit we often entertained ourselves by trying to get him to say the word ‘weather vane.’  Without fail, he always pronounced it ‘feather wane’, and then he would storm off when we got the giggles.  But one of my favorite memories of learning about different nationalities was the in-depth discussion a group of us had one night about cartoons we had all watched as children.  I grew up watching the Smurfs, and I knew that the Smurfs were European in origin, so I mentioned the cartoon, thinking we might have something in common.  All of the French people in the room started snickering at the word, and tried to pronounce it themselves.

“Quoi? What are Zee Smoooorffs?”

“You know, those little blue men?”

“Ahh! Oui Oui!  You mean “Les Schtroumpfs!”

Then it was our turn to laugh at the ridiculous word.

Just at that moment, Boris charged into the room, wanting to know what the laughter was about.  We tried to explain the conversation, and he had the most puzzled expression on his face until it suddenly dawned on him what we were talking about and he hollered out-

“Ach Ja!  Die Schlümpfe !”

The laughter lasted a long time after that one.

But the best story about Boris happened late one evening, after we had all finished eating dinner.  We were drying the dishes, when Boris, who was the only other person in the room, suddenly announced that he wanted to speak to all three of us.  We were a bit startled at the commanding way in which he said it, and even slightly alarmed when he walked over to the kitchen door and locked it!

But we quietly sat down and waited for him to speak.  He paced the room energetically for a few minutes, making us even more uneasy, and then suddenly burst out with –

“I like you.” (pointing energetically to me on the left)  “And I like you.” (pointing to ‘E’ on the right.)  My friend ‘N’ in the middle he completely ignored.  The stunned silence that greeted this statement was, I hope, understandable.

He elaborated.

“I vould like to date you both, but I can’t decide vich.  It is like a clock in my head going- tick, tock, tick, tock.”  From the direction in which his head was tilting back and forth, it appeared that I was tick and ‘E’ was tock.

“Efery morning,” he continued, “I come down to the kitchen and I see you (pointing at me) cooking breakvast and I think, ‘Ja, I will marry her and haf hot meals every day and maybe someday haf nine children.’ ”

More stunned silence.

“But then, I see you come down (pointing to ‘E’) and I think to myself, ‘Ach, she is so beautiful!’ And so, you see, I can’t decide”

At this point, my poor friend ‘N’ tried to excuse herself from the proceedings, seeing as she was not needed, but he told her to sit.  Apparently the ball was in our court now, and we simply stared at each other in disbelief, trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves.

The rest of the meeting didn’t go well, seeing as, believe it or not, both of us turned him down.  In the end he got angry and I don’t know how it might have ended if he hadn’t seen one of our good friends walking by the window and quickly stormed out of the kitchen.  When our friend entered, out burst our strange tale, a bit hysterically if I remember correctly.  He assured us that he would keep an eye on Boris, and that maybe we should keep out of his way for a while.

But Boris did a good job of keeping out of our way, until he found a different living situation that would suit him, and us, better.  I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye, but I have always kind of wondered. Whatever happened to Boris, the man who couldn’t decide between tick and tock?


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