TowerI have the uncanny ability to mangle the language of any country I happen to be visiting. This trait is only slightly more pronounced than my ability to mangle English.

Late at night on the streets of Paris I was completely lost in a desolate part of the city. A car stopped, a man got out and, hoping to explain my paltry understanding of the language I said: “Je parles Francais,”  accidentally leaving out the all important “n’ and pas.”

“You speak French!” He exclaimed in beautiful English, intuiting that indeed I did not.

Searching through Mexico City for a folk art shop we read about, we discovered it just as the owner was locking the door. “Are you closé?” I said, pronouncing the “e” as an “A” and somehow thinking that might turn it into Spanish.

“Yes, we are closed!” the store owner said, not bothering to hide his disdain. My traveling companion had turned in another direction, bird360pretending not to know me. She continued pretending this for a while after the store owner was gone.

In Nicaragua: When trying to explain our pleasure in being with our hosts my wife and I explained that we sweat good. I’m sure they were pleased to hear it.

I traveled to Japan when one of my books was published there. After a long and exciting day I hopped a train from Fukuoka, a beautiful city on the Sea of Japan, bound for Tokyo.

I was bone-tired and on the train I noticed a woman in a similar state of exhaustion. Despite fatigue I wanted to get every photo I could on this trip so I raised the camera and “click.” Her eyes opened, looking straight at me and I bowed politely.

I had been told that if I wanted to tell someone I was a photographer, I would use the word for photograph, shashin, and put the suffix –ka at the end. Shashin-ka, I am a photographer. Of course, any word you put the suffix –ka at the end of, is what you become!

rawfish2I had just a few words of Japanese in my head, and when I bowed I said to her: “Sashimi-ka.” Her eyes opened wide and as she began to laugh, she said in halting English: “You are raw fish!”

We both laughed and she went home to talk of the raw fish that took her photograph.

In Kyoto a young interpreter took us to a beautiful, peaceful, elegant, simple, and most importantly, quiet, Zen temple and garden. Our words are not the only way we communicate. In Japan some bodily functions are more acceptable than others. While in America, a sneeze is acceptable in public while the passing of certain odiferous gasses accompanied by a somewhat staccato sound is not — in Japan it is the opposite. I have allergies. Thus, when standing in the Zen Temple, surrounded by people sipping green tea and contemplating, I sneezed … loudly … twice. My interpreter was suddenly several feet away looking in another direction. I knew this technique.

Somehow I muddled through.

I am in good company. John F. Kennedy once told Germans that he was a jelly doughnut and there are stories of a recent president and a certain vice-presidential candidate mangling a language they might have referred to as American.

In telling these stories over the years each person who hears them seems to have one or two of their own. Please feel free to enlighten us in the comments, I would love to hear your stories!

photos: The Eiffel Tower at night, a boy and his pet bird in Mexico and an exhausted woman on the train to Tokyo.

Billy Howard

Billy Howard

Billy Howard is a commercial and documentary photographer with an emphasis on education and global health.