I have lived in the U.S. on and off for the last 8 years and I think I can say that my English language skills have definitely improved. However, a recent incident ("Your dog is such a cute little vermin!") reminded me that there is still some work to be done. It also inspired me to write down the top 5 mishaps of intercultural misunderstandings and incidents in which I found myself lost in translation or otherwise confused:
#1 First Visit to the Grocery Store
One of my all time high moments in the category lost in translation happened on my second day in Athens in August 2002.
My first time in the U.S., I was not only struggling with the language but also with the Southern accent. What's now music in my ears was then pure horror. Everything was a challenge even a simple visit to the grocery store.
I took the bus from Baxter to BiLo on South Milledge. I got my groceries, proceeded to the check out, and swiped my card. The guy at the register asked me "Debit or Credit?". All I understand is "credit" and I reply "yes". The guy annoyed: "Yes, what!?" My confusion grows reciprocal to length of the line behind me. What is debit? After some back and forth I asked him to hold my stuff, left, got cash out of an ATM, came back and paid. My roommate later explained "debit" and I never went back.
On a side note, I carried my 4 big bags back home from South Milledge to Baxter Street (in August). Half way, a random guy in a car asks me whether I need help. Sweating like Mother Teresa in an all men's sauna, I kindly declined in shame and pretended, that my place is right around the corner. It was not...
#2 First Thanksgiving
The family of a now very good friend invited me to come to Atlanta for my first Thanksgiving Holiday after running the Atlanta Half Marathon. I truly had a great time and it could not have been a better experience of one of the best American traditions. To me it was clear that I needed to show my heartfelt gratitude upon leaving, which I did by uttering: "Thank you so much for your hostility." It wasn't until the Thanksgiving the following year that I was told about the mishap and the existence of the word "hospitality."
#3 Flash a Stop Sign
At some point your friends stop correcting your mistakes. That's the only explanation I have for getting away with using the phrase "Flash a stop sign." in sentences like "Oops, i think I just flashed a stop sign" or "I saw a guy today flashing a red light at the intersection downtown" for years.
Half a year ago Stef mentioned that I should not use the word "flash" in this context. "You should use "run" instead." Apparently she was always wondering what I am talking about. My mind was racing trying to figure out who of the people that don't know me too well could have mistaken me for a total creep for uttering the words.
I am a new employee at the Agora store in Athens, horrified about every customer coming into the door because my English is still not what it should be for
excellent customer service. But i need this job desperately and try to give my best. A Woman enters the store. "Hi there, do you have eisels?" Me: "Sorry ma'am, we don't sell animals."
#5 New York Road Trip
I'm driving my 1993 Mazda Protege up the highway to NYC breathing the smell of the open road. I am finally enjoying being part of the American way of live and total mobility after numerous previous eye opening trips in Greyhound Buses. I was enjoying myself so much that I first didn't realize the police car approaching from the back with its signal lights on.
I wasn't anywhere near Autobahn speed but thought to myself that I must have been speeding. The police car approaches, I pull over to the shoulder of the Freeway and stop. Instead of enjoying the American dream, I now try concentrating on what my friends told me to do in situations like these in order to not get shot. The cop car stops right in front of me behind a stalled car. The police officer gets out and walks over to me: "Can I help you young man?" Now I am totally confused. Why would he ask that right after pulling me over?
"Well officer, you pulled me over but I am not sure for what. I don't think I was speeding." "No see son, if I wanted to pull you over, I would have driven and stopped right BEHIND you. I was just gonna check on the stalled car right up there." The level of embarrassment I instantly experienced is indescribable. Knowing that I would be the laughingstock in some random highway police station in the middle of Virginia for quite a while didn't make it any better.
There are more stories than that (Huevos will always (mis)remember a lost in translation moment at the entry of the law library) and I'll try to write them down in the weeks to come.