American Spoken Here*


H. Allen Smith

THE ACTOR CYRIL RITCHARD tells a story of an overrefined English lady who, visiting in Italy and unable to communicate with the natives, finally complained: "I don't see why, if one speaks slowly and distinctly, English should not be understood by everybody."

There have been moments, in foreign climes, when I have had the same feeling. I know that in these days of simplified teaching methods it is considered boorish as well as unwise for an American to visit a foreign country without first learning a smattering of the language. Yet I am prepared to argue the matter. I say that if you are planning a trip to continental Europe or to Latin America and you have no knowledge whatever of any foreign tongue, and you don't have the time to do any studying, then leave it that way. You'll have just as much fun being dumb and hysterical. Maybe more.

In the first place there is no such thing as a smattering of French. If you are the type who insists on personal colloquy with the natives, there is only one course open to you: spend at least six months in assiduous study at home, then go to France and live among Frenchman for a year; after that you are adequately prepared to go to France.

Personally I am convinced that no amount of schooling would ever get me to talking French and, as for German, I simply shut my eyes and try not to think about it. My friends say, "Oh, it's only in your mind." That's precisely what they say to me when I argue that I can't sleep at night if I drink coffee in the evening. "It's only in your mind," they say. Of course it's in my mind! That's the main part I sleep with, just as my mind is the part I use most in trying to speak French.

Perhaps that's my trouble. It may be that French is a thing you learn more with the roof of the mouth than with the brain. It is necessary to manipulate and maneuver the roof of the mouth, and I simply can't manage it. The roof of my mouth always seems to be stiff and intractable. I sometimes try to run a bluff by saying, "I can't speak French because I have a Middlewestern palate." I've even got so I believe that's really the reason.

In Paris I finally acquired a few words of broken French and I mastered the approximate pronunciation of monsieur but only because the Tobias brothers, twenty-some years earlier, wrote a popular song called "Miss You." Like many thousands of Americans before me I have always wanted to pronounce monsieur the way it is spelled, the way the doughboys of World War I are said to have pronounced it, i.e., mon-sewer. But in Paris, each time I had occasion to use the salutation, I compelled myself to remember the Tobias song and then spoke the title of it (sometimes I sort of sang it) and quite a few Frenchman knew what I was saying. On at least one occasion I suffered a mental lapse and sang out, "Monsieur, since you went away dear."

In France, in Switzerland, and in Italy my unilingual wife and I had many fine adventures, but when we got home the things that stood out in memory, the things we wanted to tell about, were the language block incidents.

Later, in Mexico, we did make an earnest effort to learn some Spanish, but the consequences were often ludicrous. For example, an incident in the city of Morelia. I had heard that in Mexico, if you are able to be polite in Spanish, you'll get by handsomely. So we drilled ourselves in the phrases of courtesy, such as por favor and gracias, and I told my wife that she should employ these words in any and all circumstances. She was out marketing that day in Morelia when a Mexican gentleman, slightly intoxicated, approached her and made an improper proposal. My wife smiled at him politely and said, No, gracias, señor." He followed her, persisting in his suit, and she continued to respond with, "No, muchas gracias, señor." The proper response, of course, would have been to belt him one with her shopping bag.

I wrote of my wife's politeness in a book about Mexico. Later my friend Paul Perez of Oaxaca told me about a woman friend of his, from San Francisco, and how she had a similar experience with a Mexican gentleman in Mexico City. The man approached her and made what was quite clearly an indecent (!) proposal. She knew a few words of Spanish which she had acquired from looking at western movies and television shows. She spoke sharply to the romantic Mexican, saying "Vámonos!" She believed the word to mean, "Begone! Scat! Hit the road!" But he did not hit the road. Instead he moved in closer and beseeched the tourist lady to indulge his passion. Again she told him to vámonos, but the command only served to increase his ardor, and he was about to seize her in his arms when she saw some other Yankee tourists up ahead. She hurried into their company, and the Mexican went his way, and she now explained the trouble she had undergone with him, and how he ignored her command to vámonos. Only then did she learn, as her fellow tourists informed her, that when she said "Vámonos!" she was saying, "Let's go!" or "Let's get going!"

In Paris one afternoon I "died" in the middle of the Boulevard St. Germain. We had been sopping up atmosphere at one of the sidewalk tables of the Café Deux Magots (just about as unsavory a name as anyone could think up for a restaurant). I consulted the itinerary I had worked out at breakfast and found it was time for us to visit Napoleon's tomb. You'll get absolutely nowhere in France saying "Napoleon" the way we say it in America. I knew this already. I knew that the proper way to say it is "Nap-oley-onh." At least I thought I knew it.

We walked out into the middle of the boulevard where the taxicabs were stationed and approached one of the drivers.

"Nap-oley-onh," I told him with great confidence. I thought that would be sufficient, but the man just gave me a dumb Gallic stare.

"Tomb . . . of . . . Nap-oley-onh," I said, employing the manner ordinarily used in speaking to tiny children. He began darting glances around the street as if looking for help. I took hold of his arm and said, commandingly, "Attendez moy." I put my right hand inside my jacket, shortened my stature by crouching at the knees, and said loudly and firmly, "Nap-oley-onh.

Nap . . . oley . . . onh!" Now he fired a volley of grapeshot over my head, the tone of which indicated that he had no inkling of what I was talking about and, in fact, suspected that I was trying to borrow money from him.

"Nap-oley-onh!" I persisted. "Nap-oley-onh. Tomb. Die. Dead. Mort. Morty. Nap-oley-onh. Dead. Body. Dead body."

"You're attracting attention," said my wife. The people at the two sidewalk cafés were all staring at us, but I figured that most of them were Existentialists, loaded with van, so I didn't care. I was downright sore at the stupidity of this driver in the presence of such a simple statement as Nap-oley-onh. After all, if a Frenchman came up to me on the street in New York and said, "You lee siss ass grand," I feel sure I'd have sense enough to direct him to the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant. So I kept at it, growing louder, and finally I made a pistol out of my hand, placing the index finger to my temple and wagging the thumb. I said "Bang!" and closed my eyes and jerked my head back and forth a couple of times in what I fancied was rather an expert portrayal of a man with a bullet through his brain. Then I began weaving and staggering slightly.

"You're giving tourists a bad name," my wife said. I ignored her and said, "Dead! Nap-oley-onh! Tomb!" I threw my head back, eyes closed, and crossed my arms over my chest and cried out, "Nap-oley-onh!"

That did it. "Walla!" cried the driver. "Onh-va-leed!" He seemed so happy that he had been able to understand an American with so little difficulty. And he took us to The Invalides. My friends tell me that if I'd said "Onh-va-leed" in the beginning, he'd have known. I doubt it, for I have a strong tendency to pronounce The Invalides as if it meant The Sick People.

My death scene on the Boulevard St. Germain was only one of many memorable incidents which made our continental journey more exciting than it would have been if we had known the language. Eventually we left Paris on an overnight train for Lugano in the southern part of Switzerland. We were going into a country where they speak four foreign languages, but people told us not to worry. "Everybody in Switzerland speaks English," they said. These same people told us, incidentally, that Swiss trains run like Swiss watches. I thought they ran remarkably like trains.

We were highballing through Switzerland when we got out of our berths the next morning and made our way to the restaurant car. We sat down at a table and I told my wife that I would do the ordering because I do not speak foreign languages better than she doesn't. The kitchen was right behind me, within a few feet of our table but hidden by a partition. There were perhaps a dozen other travelers in the car. Finally a waiter came up and said something to us in Italian and my wife said she thought she would start with prunes.

"Prunes," I said to the waiter. He registered imbecility. He then delivered a long harangue in which, I believe, he was trying to establish if we spoke French, Italian, German Romansch, Esperanto, Swahili, or Gregg shorthand. I answered with one word. "Prunes", I said firmly. He repeated it to himself, mispronouncing it in some clever way, but I nodded and he went on into the kitchen. We could hear the conversation back there-two or three men talking explosively.

"Proooon!" they were saying. "Proooon! Proooon? PROOOON?"

After a while the waiter came back and talked some more in Italian, and shrugged a good deal, and from the way he kept saying "Proooon" I realized that he wasn't pleading lack of prunes, but lack of comprehension. Then I remembered having seen prunes on a menu in Paris, so now I got out a pencil and pad and printed the word pruneau. He studied it a while and I said "Prunes" several times more, and he went back to the kitchen.

I never heard such carring-on. Someone back there yelled Proooon-ah! Proooon-oh!" Someone else cried, "Ah-proooon!" And there was a great scurrying an scuffling and several minutes passed, and then our waiter emerged in triumph, and placed in front of my wife . . . one soft-boiled egg. She clutched at her throat and turned her head away, for she cannot even witness a soft-boiled egg first thing in the morning. She made waving motions, indicating that he should take the abomination out of her sight. He was crestfallen and as he picked it up I told him, softly, "Prunes."

Back in the kitchen there were sounds bordering on lamentation and wondering cries of "Ah-proooon!" and "Proooon-ah!" and "Proooo-uns!" I realized that we were no closer to prunes than we had been when we boarded the train. I thought of trying to act out a prune-making a charade out of it. At first a pantomime signifying prune seemed both ridiculous and impossible: then I thought of trimming limbs off trees and shrubbery, and made a few tentative motions as if I were operating a pair of hedge-clippers. But I abandoned the idea, for fear he would fetch me a set of Cuban maracas, or two buggy whips.

I still had the pencil and pad on the table, so I made a quick sketch of a prune, drawing an oval with a crinkly edge and then blacking it in. It was accurate enough, but I realized that if I showed it to the waiter and he took it to the kitchen, he'd probably come back with an order of overdone meatballs. As matters stood he was still back there with the slip of paper containing the word pruneau, and it sounded as if he and his colleagues were engaged in a heated argument.

Then suddenly above the train noises came a mighty cry: "AHA! AH-PROOOON-AH!"

It was repeated triumphantly by the others and in a moment our waiter came through the door, beaming, and he exclaimed, "Ah-proooon-ah!" and placed in front of my wife . . . a quart bottle of liquor.

We both started to laugh, and then to cry out, "No, no, no!" and "Non, non, non!" and other passengers in the car now joined in the hilarity; apparently they had been watching our little drama all the while.

Now a Swiss air force officer arose from his table and came down the line and approached us.

"I speak small English," he said, bowing slightly. "You are a difficulty? Perhaps I can be of service."

"Prunes," I said. "Ma-damn wants prunes. You . . . know . . . what . . . is . . . prunes?" I showed him the little sketch and then said, "Fruit. Frooo-it. Froit. Froy. Dried le plum." He got it. He spoke in Italian to the waiter, and the waiter spoke in Italian to him, and he said, "Very sorry. No prunes." I asked him if Switzerland is devoid of prunes. "It is known in this country," he said, "but only for people who is sick."

"Okay," I said. "It is not important. Please tell him bacon and werfs."

And so after a while we came to Lugano and we were following our baggage down the station platform when we happened to notice three white-capped heads sticking out of one of the train windows. The heads belonged to the kitchen crew. They were smiling at us, and waving river-dirtchy, and crying out, "Ah-proooon! Proooon-ah! Ah-proooon-ah!" Somehow we felt good about the whole episode.

Later that same day we were in a speedboat traveling across Lake Lugano, the two of us occupying the same seat which former King Farouk of Egypt had occupied one week earlier. The owner of the speedboat made much of this circumstance, displaying a fine sense of humor. He told us that he ought to charge us extra for sitting on the same seat that King Farouk had sat on; but he said he wouldn't charge us extra because the two of us fitted into the same space.

To my mind the adventure of the prunes far outshines the adventure of Farouk's seat. I don't contend that learning a foreign language is a bad thing to do. Obviously you'd be better off in France if you spoke French fluently. But I do say that if you're going traveling among foreigners, and you haven't found time to learn their language, go as you are . . . and order prunes.

*Reprinted from How To Write Without Knowing Nothing Copyright ©1961 by H. Allen Smith

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