During our travels, we often find ourselves lost for words… literally. The inability to speak a foreign language sufficiently coherently to make yourself understood to the locals, can often lead to hilarious consequences which can often leave everyone involved in the episode more than a little baffled!!
This has often been the case in Rabat, Morocco which was home to us for all of 6 weeks, although it felt longer!
With the majority of Moroccans speaking their own special brand of Arabic as a first language, closely followed by French (as well as some Spanish and Berber), it can be difficult to make yourself understood when you specialise in English and Asian languages.
I think I have already uttered more than my share of faux pas’s during my short stay here, and I expect it will only get worse before it even starts getting even a little better!!
Yesterday, I was trying to buy a ball of string – a really simple everyday item. Just some string to hang up some paintings on the wall in a slightly quirky style.
The problem started when I couldn’t remember the French word for string, so I decided to play it safe and used Google Translate which offered up the word “chaine”.
So I ventured outside to the local neighbourhood convenience store, and uttered “chaine” to the vendor in a very confident “I have fully researched how to say this word, so there is NO WAY any mixup can occur”.
The storekeeper gave me a puzzled look, and asked me to say the word again, and so I did: “chaine” I said, albeit a little less confidently. He still look puzzled.
I desperately looked around for something that resembled string, but the only thing in the little shop that even minutely resembled string was a piece of wire hanging precariously from the ceiling to a lone light bulb. I grabbed it and made my best tying motion. Ta da… problem solved!
The vendor steams into the store room, and I hear frantic rummaging sounds as he throws things around and cusses happily. He comes back and plonks two large boxes on the counter. They looked like tea boxes, but I’m not that thirsty.
Anyway, I cautiously pick them up and try to find a language I can read… “blah blah blah… blah blah blah…”GUNPOWDER”. Exactly what I was looking for??? Ehhhh….!
Specifically, I seemed to have “Made in China gunpowder” and a slightly less potent “Made in Morocco gunpowder” brand, which would only result in the loss of my fingers, as opposed to my entire head, body and four limbs.
The shop keeper gesticulated enthusiasticlly toward the “Made in China” version, and made a large explosion gesture with his hands which almost made me wet myself!
I decided to go home and work out Plan B. I needed brains – serious brain power – so I sought out my 2-year baby. Jasper was grabbing at my shoe, as he wanted to come back to the shop with me. Eureka – I would take out the shoelace from my shoe, and go back – make the same tying motion, avoid ANY explosion gestures, and get my string. No problemo monsieur.
So I did. I went back to the store shamelessly, with my dirty old shoelace from my manky Nike trainers, mimed several “tying up string” gestures, said a silent pray, and smiled pleadingly at the vendor.
My pray actually went like this: “Dear God, please don’t let this man think that I am trying to strangle a goat, and bring me a goat to strangle with my bare hands”.
We have heard goats having their throats slit in this neighbourhood at 6am in the morning, and it was a little bit scary!
Hallelujah! He brought me the following items: boot polish (why?? – presumably because I had a pair of shoelaces in my hand); shoe laces – for the same reason as that provided above – good guess; matches (here we go with the blooming gunpowder again!!)… and some manky string.
I pointed with a huge beaming smile to the string. Frankly, he looked a bit disappointed that I wasn’t going with the matches!! Frankly, I didn’t care!!
I gave him a look that I hoped said “Mate, I don’t blow things up. Correction, I don’t know HOW to blow anything up – I would blow up some barrels or something if it helped to make me look cool… but I don’t know to rig it all up”. Besides, I like my hands to stay where they are… on the ends of my arms!
After all that, I paid him 2 Dirham (about 20 US cents) for the string. For the sake of two measly dirham, I have lost any semblance of coolness in the eyes of that store keeper! I am no longer his hero – I am no longer Jackie Chan!
I STILL don’t know if I was uttering the wrong word for string in French, but it sounds close enough to “chain”, which is kind of like “string”? Go with the logic – I’m desperate trying to regain some self-dignity here!
Indeed, I still don’t know what the heck “Chaine” means in Moroccan Arabic. I will ask my friends there to uncover the mystery. If anyone can offer up any answers to clear up my poor puzzled mind, please let me know.
In the meantime, steer clear of the word “chaine”, unless of course you want gunpowder. If so, you can buy mine of me. Just write to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll even give you a small discount – how does 2 Dirham sound!
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