Living abroad in one of the most valuable experiences I will ever have. Not only from the obvious cross-cultural perspective but also because of the more subtle nuances offered from living abroad and speaking to people. I have been studying French for fours years and in the process, have learned more about my own language than I ever imagined I could. Even though English is my mother tongue, it never ceases to amaze me how much others educate me about my own language, and how, even when speaking the same language, things get lost in translation.
Recently, I was talking to a friend who speaks English perfectly, despite having never lived in an English speaking country (don’t you just hate that). We were planning a coffee social at my house and as I only have one of those high tech yuppie coffee makers that brews one cup at a time, I asked her if she had a coffee pot that brews 6-8 cups at a time that I could borrow (a la Mr. Coffee). My friend said she did not have one of those but offered to bring her “plunger”.
Some party! I laughed and said, “Well, I don’t think our toilets are having any trouble guests won’t be staying more than 2 hours, so I don’t think that’s necessary. ”
She, in turn, looked at me like I had antennae, and then…silence. (Insert crickets here).
Clearly she was talking about something else, and clearly she was wondering why I was talking about toilets. So I said, in hopes of clarifying and clearly thinking she had made a mistake, “In English, a plunger is the device we use to unplug the toilet.” (of course I added the hand motions for affect). She said, “Well it is also the coffee pot that you push down the top. Isn’t that called a plunger?”
I was stumped. To be honest, I knew exactly what she was talking about (or so I thought), but had no idea what it was called. A coffee pot? A Thermos? So I suggested those two words. My friend said knowingly, “Surely a thermos is a flask in which you keep drinks hot.”
Damn it. The non-English native speaker was teaching me my own language. Of course she was right. She gave the perfect webster’s definition of flask better than I could have ever done. I finally decided what she was talking about was called a ‘pump pot’. (Almost as funny as plunger, non?) This is the coffee pot you always see at office meetings or school functions…you push down the round disk on top and air forces the coffee out of the spout and into your empty cup. Ok, finally we were talking the same language. Or were we?
So thanked her for the offer but told her a pump pot wouldn’t help because I would still have to fill it one cup at a time ( with my yuppy Delonghi coffee maker). Crickets again.
Finally she said,
“Well I think this will work, as it is quite large. You put the coffee grounds in, then pour boiling water over it and press the top down, and it makes about 8 cups at a time. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?”
EUREKA. I started laughing. “Oh, you are talking about a French Press!?”
“Yes, I think it’s French.” She said. “But in Australia this is called a plunger.”
(I learned then and there that my friend’s mother had lived in Australia for 11 years when she was young.)
You see, this is a conversation I would never have had, had I never left my home country.
I found it enlightening, educational and downright comical that this discussion went on ALL IN ENGLISH and still, we had trouble communicating. It made me realize, there is always room for interpretation, always room for better understanding of that which you think you know, always something new to be learned about a friend, and there is always room for a plunger at a coffee clutch.
Do you have any words like this that mean one thing in English and another in…Enlgish! Or have you had a similar experience? Let me know at www.abroadinbelgium.com