Lost in Translation

I lived in France for a year and speak and read the language pretty well, but it doesn’t do me much good here in America. Sure, I can order the heck off of a French menu, or translate the tasting notes off the back of a Bordeaux (which by-the-way is unnecessary, since I have yet to find a Bordeaux I haven’t liked) but I really can’t put it to proper use here.

Spanish, on the other hand, could have saved me loads of time and money and embarrassment over the years: time trying to explain things to a multitude of gardeners, pool guys and construction workers; money trying to negotiate with said workers; and embarrassment, well…

Here in Georgia, I walk out while my lawn is being done to tell them to be more careful around the bushes, or not cut the grass so low, and it’s a real crapshoot as to whether or not the guy I’m talking to gets me. Part of the problem is, it’s almost always a different guy. I guess I could start with “habla ingles?” but is that rude? So I just start by speaking English and try to read them by their nods and responses. I’m out there making giant hand gestures, while my neighbors must think I’m practicing to be a mime.

Back in LA, it was almost a given that my revolving lawn guys didn’t speak English. They also didn’t seem to know the difference between a weed and an herb. My wife was getting more and more angry with them with each herb they destroyed. “Can you talk to them again? I really don’t want to lose my rosemary too,” Alex said to me after her precious thyme had been obliterated by a weed-eater. “I have told them in plain English not to wack our herbs,” I said, realizing how stupid it sounded as it came out.

Alex is not one to just give up, however. The next time the gardeners were due to arrive, she had written out a missive in Spanish. “Can you put this out for them please?” she asked me. “Sure, but what does it say?” I prodded. “I found a Spanish translation site and they say it reads: ‘Please do not cut down our herbs with your weed-wacker.’” I shrugged and taped it to a tree right next to our herbs.

We came home later and found the gardeners having lunch under the tree. When they saw us they elbowed each other and snickered. Later I retrieved the note and read it again. Now, as stated, my Spanish is pretty much nil, but French is a romance language and somewhat similar. I went back in the house. “What were they laughing about?” Alex inquired. “I’m not certain, but I think we just told the gardeners not wack off on our herbs.”

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Reincarnated as a Horse

We took our French goddaughter, Ines, to horse country while she was here. Not Kentucky, which is no doubt horse country, but seems to be more about the business of horses than the pleasure. No, we took her north of Atlanta, where there are several horse-happy communities.

We passed a house… okay, mansion, with a “stable” built into the side of the place like it was just another wing. It even had a “horse porch” with outdoor ceiling fans… for the horses. We got out and took a picture of a stop sign that said whoa instead of stop. We passed rolling front yards kissed by the sun, the gentle Georgia breeze blowing horse tails and manes.

Our destination was a house in Milton. A friend of ours had heard that Ines was into horses and had offered to let her ride at her house. Ines was confused at first. “Where’s the riding ring?” she asked. “There is no ring,” our friend answered. “Just ride around the property.” Ines couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.

After the ride, we all sat on the front porch for a spell, as they do in horse country. “The horses around here sure seem to be treated well,” I said. “If you only knew,” our friend replied. “There are horse masseuses, horse hair stylists, horse therapists. They are more than pampered. If I die, I’d like to come back as a Milton horse.” Ines’ English was pretty good, but she couldn’t quite grasp that one. “Quoi?” she asked, looking at me for clarification. I translated in my decent but rusty French. She still looked confused. “I’ll explain later,” I told her.

I realize now, I never did explain later. I can just see her telling the story to her friends back in France about the crazy American woman who wants to come back to life as a horse.

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No Trespassing?

Passing Rustrel’s little town center, we noticed a crowd gathered outside the café and boulangerie in front of a big-screen TV watching France in the World Cup. It was probably the whole town since this was an important late-round match.

We gathered around our own big-screen TV to watch in the comfort of our rental house. Ines was totally into it, but us Americans got bored with the long match. I mean this is a game that counts minutes going up, not down, and has more crybabies than a maternity ward. Besides, anytime something really exciting happened, there was a huge roar from the nearby town center that gave us enough time to catch the replay.

France won and all was right with that part of the world. Between the game and catching up with Ines, it was a really late night, so the leaf blowers early the next morning were an unwelcome surprise. No, you can’t escape the grating whine of leaf blowers even in the serene south of France– apparently red is not the only “wine” out here.

So, we rubbed our eyes and headed out on another adventure. We probably saw three cars in an hour between Rustrel and Sault. This seemed like literally the middle of nowhere. The only sign for miles was a small hand-made thing that read “miel et huile de lavande”: Lavender honey and lavender oil. “Turn here!” Alex screamed as soon as she saw the sign. She was determined to find the most local of ingredients, and this couldn’t be more local.

We followed the dirt and gravel road until we saw a sign that said “No Trespassing.” I almost turned around, but Alex my often risk-averse, sometimes risk-taking but always pragmatic other-half said “they wouldn’t have a sign advertising honey and lavender oil for sale if they didn’t want trespassers.” I drove on, hoping there wasn’t another angry farmer incident (especially out here where guns were probably considered a fashion accessory).

The path curved around to a valley view of purple lavender fields between rocky cliffs and a small stone house nestled in a nook in the distance. We pulled up to the house, but it appeared no one was home. Suddenly two little girls ran down from a hill on the other side of the driveway.

“Bonjour” I said, and asked about the honey and lavender. They were in the house before I finished my sentence yelling “Il y a quelq’un!” We waited in the car, just in case we had to tear out of there.

A sun-weathered woman with a twinkle in her blue-gray eyes appeared with some bottles in hand. The little girls followed and circled our car shyly, but curiously checked us out. The sun reflected off of eyes just like their mother’s. Maman proudly showed us her hand-made products. We sniffed some of the strongest lavender oil we had smelled since arriving in Provence, and this stuff was about half the price of the tourist shops.

She invited us in to see what else she had. “Pas de miel,” no honey, I asked? She explained that it was the beginning of honey making season soon, and she had already sold out of last season’s. “That explains the buzzing lavender fields,” Alex said. We had braved a walk through the center of a field to get a better photo a few days earlier and the bushes were alive with bees.

We bought a few bottles of lavender oil and said our adieus. The little girls waved and ran back up to their hidden play area, ready to pounce on the next guest brave enough to venture down. We stopped at a curve to take a photo of the private lavender valley and noticed another rental car cautiously making it’s way down. They probably thought we were the ones who posted that no trespassing sign. We waved them past before taking one of the more memorable photos of our trip, looking out over a neatly tended lavender field curving into the valley below.

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Grumpy Dog

Waking up late the next morning with surprisingly no red-wine hangover, we enjoyed fresh croissants that our hostess had left outside the door (amazing how easily one can endear themselves— especially with French bread). After breakfast we moseyed onto our narrow one-way street back toward town. The girls had dolled themselves up, my wife’s red hair shining in the morning sun, and I felt refreshed from a decent sleep and a good shower. An obviously local Frenchman approached with a French bulldog in tow. “Bonjour” I said, but the Frenchman and his dog just walked by with nary a glance. “Grumpy,” said my wife. “Did you notice, both he and his dog had the same frown” I said, surprised that he so blatantly ignored us.

Still on the backstreets, we turned a corner and came upon a lone cat. Alex is known amongst our friends as sort of a cat whisperer. She leaned in to try to get the cats attention but it just turned its head away casually as if saying, “talk to the paw.” Alex couldn’t even get one photo of this cat’s face.

Fortunately, the beauty of our surroundings made up for the lack of warmth we got from the locals and their pets. Alex had taken up fine art photography on one of our vacations from Venice to the Amalfi coast of Italy. She had also shot all over the US, joining me on my business trips from the southern California coast up to Seattle, the Rockies to the Tetons, Charleston to Savannah, even Maui to Kauai. This trip looked to be a goldmine for the architectural and nature-type photos she was so good at shooting….and the croissants of course!

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USA, USA

World Cup fever had just descended upon France as we arrived. French flags flew from windows everywhere. The French were set to play an important match against the Nigerians in a couple days, but the upstart US team was also still surprisingly in the tournament. Maybe that’s why the older guy who ran the pizza place we chose that night was so proud, or maybe it was the more than half-century-old tension from the WWII surrender to Germany, or the American film culture prevalence in the place that invented film, après tout! Or maybe the guy had already seen too many clueless tourists at the start of a long tourist season.

My French language was starting to kick back in, and I easily ordered us a pizza, carafe of red wine and a bottle of water. “Only one pizza, for three people?” the guy spewed. “We’ll have one and maybe get another” I tried to explain. “And the water? With or without gas?” He asked, expecting to upsell us on a 6 Euro bottle of still or bubbly Evian. “Tap” I said. You could just see the guy’s head exploding from within.

A younger waiter brought out our wine and water. No plates had been set. Then a medium sized pizza, big enough for the three of us to have two pieces each, but still no plates. We waited patiently for a minute and I realized there were no plates coming.

I went inside where the proud old guy who had taken our original order was casually hanging out and asked for plates. He looked down his nose at me and declared, “that will cost 6 Euros cover.” “Look,” I said in French, gathering my jetlagged, wine-filled thoughts… “I told you we might get more depending on the…” I racked my brain how to say ‘size’, but came up with nothing. “We bought your wine!” I blurted. “6 Euros,” he stated matter-of-fact. My frustration level had peaked. “Fine, 6 Euros, bring the plates!” I almost shouted.

Midway through the pizza we needed more wine, but I really didn’t want to give this guy any more business. My wife, bless her Americanly-ingenious soul, came up with an idea. “Tell him we’ll order one more carafe of wine and one more pizza… if he’ll take off the 6 Euro cover.”

Ordering in French at this point in the journey was easy, negotiating another thing, but I gave it a go. After a little confusion, the guy agreed. “Vous venez d’ou?” Where are you from, he asked. “Nous sommes Americains” I said. He smiled enigmatically and nodded. Maybe it was my rusty French, or respect for the World Cup progress the US had just made, but that smile had a hint of warmth… or maybe condescension. As we left the place, we couldn’t help but give a faint chorus of “USA, USA.”

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Purple Haze ~ Lavender Vacation

From our plane window the Marseille coast resembled Big Sur with cliff and rock formations strewn out into the ocean and waves crashing hard against honey colored stone, but the water here was less Pacific-dark-blue and more Jamaica-clear-blue. Very beautiful…. from the air.

We only stayed in Marseille long enough to meet our friend Jen who was joining us from another flight, rent a car and leave. They call Naples Rome’s dirty little brother, and we had heard that Marseille was Paris’ dirty little sister.

Provence was our destination and lavender fields were our siren. My wife Alex had seen pictures of the velvety seas of lavender that bloom in Provence once a year, and the photographer and aesthete in her just couldn’t resist.

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