Innocent Expat Mistakes that Come Out Really, Really Wrong

When you communicate in a language that is not your own, you are bound to make mistakes. In fact, mistakes are the best way to learn the correct way of saying things. Sometimes we avoid asking how to say something completely, choosing instead to go for what we think it might be by translating from our native language as, more often than not, it is actually correct. If it isn't, the person with whom we are speaking usually responds with a little giggle and a correction which we then make an effort to remember. However, sometimes, and I am sure fellow language learners will have experienced this at least once (or on multiple occasions as in my case), we say something that seems OK to our foreign ears, but can mean something entirely different to a French speaker. This has left me in situations where I've caused fits of laughter and on some occasions, just sheer confusion.

So, friends, to save you some embarrassment, here are my personal expat mistakes that you too can now avoid! These range from the classic baisser/baiser slip-ups that are usually just a slight error in pronunciation (remember to really hiss on that 's', guys), to more serious mistakes when you are completely unaware that what you are saying has nothing to do with what you mean.


My earliest memory of the latter involved me writing a story at the age of 12 about a friend's birthday party that I was very excited about. Unfortunately, at an age where puberty made sex the most awkward topic a tween could possibily think of discussing, I did exactly that: I told my teacher I was excited, or excitée. As mortified as I was when I received that 'essay' back with a giant red circle around the word 'excitée' (dear Lord, I cringe even as I write it today...), with an arrow around it and the words 'THIS MEANS AROUSED BUT GOOD EFFORT', my teacher who, although had tried to soften the blow to my dignity with words of encouragement, decided to go the extra mile as public humiliation was necessary for the greater good of the rest of the class. ''Children,'' she said as she explained to them the very amusing mistake I had made, ''never say you are 'excité' for something like Reem did. The expressions you sould be using are 'j'ai hâte de...' or 'j'attend avec impatience' ''.


Hence the root of my irrational fear of making mistakes – a fear I only really overcame when I moved to France and was forced to deal with the fact that I had to pay my dues in mistakes if I were to ever achieve near-native grammar (which, by the way, I am still not quite close to despite my considerable improvement.) But I digress...
Flash forward to the present – I have moved to France and have begun to push myself to speak and make French friends. During my welcome soirée that my colocs threw for me, I did my best to mingle and meet people. Intending to ask my French coloc to introduce me to her fellow French friends, I used the verb s'introduire, you know, because that's what it is in English. It was a safe bet, I thought. Unfortunately, I had apparently asked her to insert me to her friends. The verb I was looking for was se presenter. I never made that mistake again as those 4 faces of pity and confusion always creep into my mind – and now you'll remember the correct verb too!


My most embarrassing mistake to date, however, happened this past December. Parisian winters are notoriously cold and unpleasant to deal with. On a date with a Parisian boy, the first one I had met, he complained to me about the freezing weather and how it gave him chapped lips. I offered him lip balm from my trusty tub of Aloe Vera moisturizing balm. Obviously I had no idea how to say that in French, so I used the well-known brand name as it was, I thought, French-made. When he got giggly and awkward and began asking me curious questions about whether I carried that around with me often, I was confused and proceeded to explain that I, too, sufferered from chapped lips.

It was only until about 2 months later when my tub of Aloe Vera had run out, that I realized what the language barrier had prevented me from understanding a couple of months earlier. While on the hunt for some new lip balm, the pharmacy man whom I had just asked for some Vaseline looked around awkwardly and pointed to the wide range of lubricants on the stand right in front of me. Apparently, fellow French learners, what we English speakers innocently call Vaseline does not, in fact, mean petroleum jelly, lip balm or moisturizer, or any of the other skin products Vaseline makes – at all! The word is reserved exclusively for...well, lubricant. Even if my lip balm was, actually, a Vaseline product, the word in France can only have sexual connotations.


Mortified. Utterly mortified.


So, my fellow unsuspecting, hard-working language learners, I hope my mishaps prove useful in avoiding similar situations. I hope you remember to properly pronounce ''beaucoup'' as ''bo-coo'' and not ''beau-cul'', that you remember the faux-amis ( that may get you into sticky situations and certainly that you never offer a French man any Vaseline lip balm on your first dinner date. 

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