One of life's little pleasures for me is to hear a foreigner speak my mother tongue, Twi. I constantly have to check that I haven't broken into goofy, happy smiles, or the speaker would suddenly wonder what is wrong with my facial muscles. A fuzzy warmth envelopes me when I notice the keenness and enthusiasm with which it is spoken, and it is an eternal fascination of mine that language is such a shared experience.
During a recent impromptu language exchange session with a group of new friends from varying backgrounds, I learnt the basics of ordering coffee in Afrikaans, shopping in a fancy dress store in German, asking for directions in Polish, and buying a train ticket in Urdu. I, in turn, taught them how to introduce themselves in Twi.
Goofy smile? Check.
Fresh from this elementary lesson in some of the languages of the world, I met Peter, and because I thought I'd overhead him say something to that effect, I was immediately keen to impress:
'I know a few words in Polish..' I began excitedly. 'Przepraszam, prawo, prosto, lewo.' (Excuse me, right, straight, left)
I looked at him expectantly. Sure, I'd delivered a pretty dubious monologue of words, but he must have recognised some of them.
So why was his face blank?
'Przepraszam - ' I began again, a little shakily this time, slightly unnerved by the vacant look.
'I'm not Polish,' he interrupted, straight-faced.
'I'm not Polish,' he repeated slowly.
'I'm sorry..' I said meekly. So clearly, I'd misheard him say to someone else earlier that he was..
'I'm Slovaki,' he said, almost kindly.
'Oh. I don't know any words in Slovaki...' my voice had gone feeble. Man, this conversation had not gone as expected. Time to beat a hasty exit.
Meeting new people can be a potentially awkward scenario, especially when in unfamiliar territory. Do you shake hands, do you wave, do you just smile, do you bow or curtsy, do you kiss, do you rub noses..? It's something of a minefield. Often, these moments have presented somewhat tricky starts to otherwise pleasant social interactions: for example, in Ghana, an introduction to a friend of a friend made me initiate a light hug because I'd thought there'd been a general camaraderie between us in the time leading up to the official introduction, yet I sensed their surprise when I hugged them; in France, I was always the awkward person who didn't know which cheek to turn first when it was time to faire la bise, and would often end up in situations where I was dangerously close to planting a light smacker on the lips of a perfect stranger, instead of their cheek. It's a slightly pained encounter for all involved.
So I'm all for introductions that double as comic relief. The type where there is something to laugh about, because it's true what they say that, laughter is the shortest distance between two people. And in recent times, I haven't quite enjoyed meeting anyone as much as I did when I met Em two nights ago at a friend's flat.
She was regaling a group of people with stories about her frantic preparations toward an impending move to America, and I was drawn to them because 1) she had such a melodious lilt to her voice (I later discovered she was born to Namibian parents in South Africa, and had grown up in Belgium), and 2) she seemed to have everyone in stitches.
I walked over, and after initial introductions (blessedly pain-free), she asked me where I'm from.
'Oooh Ghana!' She squealed excitedly, 'I can say something in *Ghanaian!'
'Go on, then..' I smiled encouragingly.
'I know how to say 'how are you?'' She paused for effect, and then said enthusiastically, 'it's 'w'abɔdam?' (wa-bor-dam)
Now that was a comical moment and a half! Em was understandably horrified to learn that that which she'd been throwing around for the past two weeks thinking its meaning was 'how are you?' was actually an unsavoury 'are you mad?' in Twi. Someone somewhere, with a warped sense of humour, had played a very naughty joke on her.
And for my part..goofy smile? Check again. Didn't I say it was the enthusiasm I particularly liked?! Even if in this instance I'd been unwittingly asked if I was mad.
*For the record, there is no language called Ghanaian.