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You Got Your Pens Moving: Stories of Misunderstandings From the Matador Community

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by Teresa Ponikvar Aug 27, 2009

This week’s stories will make you laugh, but they also remind us to pay attention to our surroundings and to the words coming out of our mouths when we’re on the road in unfamiliar cultures–lest we unwittingly plant images of cheeses coated in bodily fluids in the minds of our new friends, or enrage swordfish-wielding Italian chefs.

Thanks to everyone who submitted!

It started out like any other beginners’ English class. My students were chatting about morning routines when out it slipped.

‘In the morning, I have a big Cock,’ he announced, smiling shyly at his classmates, pleased with himself.

Susana joined in. ‘I don’t like Coca-Cola,’ she said, ‘but I love coffee. I have two cups with milk and then I get dressed and brush my tits.’

–Natasha Young

We were in Serbia, drinking Turkish coffee with friends one morning, and we started talking about a billboard we saw in Nis the night before. It said (in English): Brain Rules Force Timber Push.

What? The Serbs all started trying to explain — talking at the same time in those loud voices that makes our friend Paul tell his Serb girlfriend, ‘When I learn Serbian – don’t talk to me like you’re mad.’

What they decided was that it was a VERY literal translation of our saying Mind Over Matter. Get it? Pretend the word timber means “large log”. Now do you get it? It took more words than I feel like typing, but trust me — it works.

So what other Serbian gems might we need to know? Here are a few that our friends came up with:

Pomesaj Se Sa Mekinje, Pojesce Te Svinje: If You Mix With Slop, The Pigs Will Eat You. (Choose your friends wisely.)

Ko Sadi Hkve Sa Djavolom O Glavu Mu Se Lupaju: Who Plants Pumpkins With The Devil Will Get Hit In The Head With These Pumpkins (I think this is basically the same, but it’s so very pumpkin-specific that I can’t be sure. Maybe it only applies to farmers, or to Halloween?)

Ili Jare Ili Pare: The Money Or The Goat. (You can’t have your cake and eat it too.) This one is terrific because it sounds so cool when you say it. Our kids hate it already.”

–Bob & Brenna Redpath

My Medellin apartment was well-suited for a party, and with only two weeks left in Colombia before I had to return home, I decided on a ‘wine and cheese’ theme and began inviting everyone I knew.

A few hours before the party was set to begin, I was returning from a last minute trip to the convenience store when I bumped into the beautiful Carolina. Since I’d failed to manage a date with her on every prior attempt, I was surprised to learn she was interested in attending my party. She went home to get ready, while I prepared the apartment.

As guests began to arrive with offerings of wine and typical Colombian cheeses, I spotted Carolina tasting the ones I provided. The Roquefort on a cracker was met with a grimace, leaving me to finish the last bite, while the port wine cheddar was much more to her liking.

When it came time to try the brie, she commented on how it was completely covered in sperm. I wasn’t sure I heard her right, so I asked her to repeat herself.

Again, she described the cheese as being covered in sperm. Disturbing images of semen-covered soft cheese flashed in my mind, while I stood dumbfounded before this pretty, proper Colombian woman.

I called for help in the form of my friend, Henry.

‘Henry, why is she saying the cheese is covered in sperm?’ I asked.

Henry let out a laugh, and explained, ‘Sperm in Spanish also means wax…like candles.’ ”

–David Lee

After enjoying endless plates of delicious fish in Cinque Terre, I decided to press my luck at a Venice restaurant. It is surrounded by water after all.

When my swordfish arrived, I realized the error of my ways and tried to explain to the waiter, in my garbled Italian, that it was undercooked, tasted quite fishy, and I just wasn’t going to eat it. Then I uttered the words I later regretted so badly.

‘It just doesn’t taste fresh,’ I said. The waiter’s face went blank, his eyes cold. He whisked the fish away and retreated to the kitchen.

As my husband and I pondered the implications of his actions, the squat, elderly chef came barreling out of the kitchen, and thrust an entire raw swordfish under my nose.

‘Fresca, fresca!’ she shrieked. I stared at my husband, panicked, as all eyes in the restaurant turned to us.

‘I’m sorry,’ I replied sheepishly. ‘I just didn’t like it.’

She continued to rant in rapid-fire Italian as suddenly, waiters appeared all around us, and began removing the bread, wine and water from our table. As the bill was set down and we fumbled to pay, the chef hovered in the corner giving us a look that would make even the most-hardened member of the Gambino crime family quiver.

We quickly paid and ducked out into the street, feeling the eyes of the chef boring into our backs. ‘Lesson learned,’ said my husband. ‘Never insult the freshness of an Italian chef’s fish.’ ”

–Katie Hammel

Japan is a paradoxical country when it comes to comfort. On the one hand, as an English-speaking visitor, you’ll find it very easy to get around on the trains, order food, and enjoy museum exhibits without speaking a word of Japanese.

On the other hand, once you do start taking an interest in the local language and try to form a few words,you’ll find reactions will ALWAYS be positive:

Me: Excuse… me… where… train station is?

Japanese bystander: Ohhh! Your Japanese is so honorably skillful!

This was one reason I tended to stick with English in most conversations with my Japanese girlfriend – better to be the stereotypical non-Japanese-speaking foreigner than to accept unwarranted praise.

But even straight English got me in trouble withher a few times. While we were walking down the street one evening after an Italian dinner, making jokes and poking fun at cultural differences, I casually mentioned I thought she was a ‘silly girl.’

That certainly stopped her in her tracks. ‘What do you mean? You don’t like me? You think I’m stupid?’ It turned out that she believed ‘silly’ to be more ‘foolish’ and undesirable rather than something of a joke. She stayed pretty mad for a few hours until I convinced her, as the ‘authority’ on English in this little town, that I intended no harm. Still, that didn’t stop her from looking up the word on the Internet and in her pocket translator and insisting I was looking down on her.

I was tempted, as I would to women in any country, to simply capitulate and let her believe what she liked. But rather than let this idea of foolishness spread around Japan and eventually destroy all international couples, I set the record straight.”

–Turner Wright

Once the sun went down, I stumbled out of my hostel room in London after a floor picnic consisting of wine, wine, Cadbury’s chocolate bars, and more wine. I was accompanied by three Swedish girls and two Spanish guys who were at the moment, my best friends in the whole world (I’d known them for three hours).

We were on our way to the closest bar possible. What we found consisted of, among other things, a flat-screen television projecting images of gym-savvy young men in Speedos, and a bouncer at the door named ‘Gloria’ who was adorned with platform shoes, fake eyelashes, and an Adam’s Apple. I may have been drunk and on the other side of the world, but I know a gay bar when I see one.

I resigned myself to an evening of great dance music and eye candy that I could look at but not touch. This would be fun. We were all having a good time, but a few martinis into our dance party with Cher on the turntable, Malin, one of my Swedish cohorts, leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘I think this is a gay bar!’

She had been wondering why all the attention had been directed toward Jorge and Ion. I’m not sure if it was the abundance of cheap hostel picnic wine and overpriced cocktails that led to her initial misreading of the bar clientele. That, or I’ll have to give it to Gloria the bouncer; she was rather convincing.”

–Marissa Barker

Community Connection

Want to avoid misunderstandings like these? Check out these five tips for avoiding embarrassing cultural mishaps.

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