Friday, April 12, 2013


The multiple-language skills of the people I’ve met here in Luxembourg have been mind-boggling. However, even they are not above picking the wrong word or word form now and then. (And please know that I am in no way criticizing; they are so far beyond me in linguistic dexterity that it’s embarrassing.) 

-My Luxembourgish mountain-biking friends use the word ‘funny’ for ‘fun.’ 

“There’re great trails above Hesperange,” they'll tell me. “They’re really cool, man. You’ll love it. They’re really funny.”

So for a moment I envision a trail strewn with jokes and pranks: banana peels to make us slip and fall, overturned buckets raining confetti down on our heads, a Monty Python-esque Ministry of Silly Riding demonstration, etc.—all to a Yackety Sax soundtrack.

-Last week, I visited the Luxembourg City tourist office to pick up a cycling map. I enjoyed a brief social banter with the woman behind the counter—not sure exactly which European country she was from—whose English was at least as good as mine. But when I left, she nodded her head good-bye and said, “So, Mister. Please.”

(Made me feel a little better for the countless times I’ve left some shop and said, “Bonjour.”) 

Here’s another language-based tidbit:

-During one of my first days here, I went to a pizza joint around the corner to order some dinner. The pizza maker was a skinny guy in his 30s who spoke Italian and a little French, but no English. Luckily though, a woman who works in the bakery down the street and whom I see almost every day, was there just hanging around. Thing is, while she’s French and also speaks German, she speaks no English. I speak a wee, tiny, miniscule bit of 7th-grade German and so with a lot of hand gestures, nodding and head shaking, we combined forces to translate my German to her French to the pizza maker’s Italian.

I began: “Pizza … gross (large), mit uh, … käse (cheese) … und pepperoni?” I’m stumped; I have no idea what the German word is for pepperoni, but I see salami on the menu.

“Salami. Zwei (two) salami- käse pizzas. Ein (one) gross, ein … uh, nicht so gross,” and motion with my hands to get my point across that I also want a medium.

This was transformed by the bakery woman into lots of pretty sounds (French) and by the pizza maker in Fellini movie-sounding Italian which he then barked at some kid who, until this point had been folding pizza boxes in the corner.

While an overhead TV played music videos, I waited for my pizzas. I attempted to make small talk with the bakery woman who was now seated reading a book. Let’s see, what German phrases do I know? “Jochen, bist du im garten?” (Jochen, are you in the garden?) Not really applicable here.

“Mein name ist Mike,” I say.

“Ah,” she says, somewhat humoring me. “Mein name ist (something that started with a ‘V’ but that I couldn’t understand even after asking her to repeat it three times.)

She went back to reading, but I didn’t want to give up; I find it fascinating to try to communicate with others in foreign languages I can’t understand.

“Ich schreibe,” I say. “Ich schreibe buchs. (I write books.)”

She held up the book she was reading and said something that I assume was, ‘Books like this?’ It was a girly-ish novel with a French title.

I said, guidebooks, and I acted out running, hiking and biking by making exaggerated walking and pedaling motions.

“Ahh, velo?“ she said.

“Yes—oui, velo,” I said, fairly unable to control my excitement at now having switched from German to French. Am I the shiz or what? (Suis-je le shiz ou quoi?)

On my smartphone, I went to and showed her some of the books I’d written. She nodded her head as she scrolled through the site. When she was done, out of curiosity, I looked up the book that she was reading: “Cinquante nuances de Grey.” (50 Shades of Grey.)

No, I don’t write books like that.

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