Transparent Language Blog

“Itchy Feet” Chronicles: Fear and Courgettes Posted by on Nov 13, 2013 in Archived Posts

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian fiancée. Itchy Feet is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


I was inspired to write this strip back in 2011 after a particularly terrifying episode at the supermarket involving zucchini (or “courgettes,” as they’re known by the French and, for some reason, the British). I had been living in Lyon, France for about six weeks, and it was my first or second time out and about by myself. Having studied exactly 0 hours of French before arriving in the country, a toddler would have schooled me on syntax and pronunciation, but nevertheless I foolishly felt I was adequately prepared to deal with picking up a few fruits and veggies.

Socially speaking, the supermarket transaction is the simplest of interactions to complete: goods are presented for purchase, money changes hands, said goods are bagged, and the question of who keeps the receipt is settled to the satisfaction of all interested parties. It is expected (particularly by those standing behind) to take as little time as possible, and none of the parties anticipates confusion or misunderstanding to enter into the equation.

This is precisely why the paralyzing fear of waiting in the supermarket line in a foreign land is second to none.

I am required by all parties present to behave exactly according to the social norms. Why, a local might think, would anyone be afraid or confused to enter into such a simple interaction? He expects, not wrongly, for everything to go smoothly, and for me to play my part in the social game without incident. But the local is not privy to an important factor: that in my case, language is a wild card. His French has been fine-tuned over many decades to manage this sort of situation perfectly, as well as any sort of unique variances that may rear their heads (e.g., “do you have a frequent shopper’s card?”, or “excuse me, I’m only buying one item, may I go in front of you?”). He has nothing at stake.

But my French, at the moment of this interaction, has been built by listen-and-repeat audio lessons that do not stray from the script. Even one step off the conversation I have pre-written in my head could spell utter disaster. I risk everything. Will this supermarket visit be a triumphant victory, in which no party of locals present even realizes that I am not one of them? Or will it be a bitter defeat, filled with humiliation, shame, and worst of all, the holding up of the line?

This is the grim scene facing every language newcomer in the dreaded supermarket queue. Sadly, in my case, it was to be defeat.

There were two things I had not taken into consideration before entering the checkout line. First, in France (as in most European countries), there is no strapping young lad paid to bag your goods. No, the task of bagging is yours alone, and the cost of bags is yours to carry. Now, years later and more experienced, I adore this system, but at the time I was assaulted with a baffling array of bag-related questions which I was woefully unprepared to answer. Second, though it is not the case everywhere, in this particular market one is required to weigh and price one’s own vegetables using the store’s machine. In the USA, this is done at the checkout counter. I had simply bagged my zucchini, sans sticker. O, cruel world!

Thus was I thrust rudely into the center of attention. Shoppers in line behind me fixed me with spiteful gazes while the cashier attempted, using crude gestures and increased volume, to explain my folly. I had been found out: I was no local, like those innocent others. I was a foreigner. I did not belong in their supermarket. I was not worthy of purchasing their vegetables. I put the pieces together and slunk away, red-faced and quietly furious, back to the veggie section to weigh my zucchini.

Today my French is sufficient to handle not only such a misunderstanding, but also the fear of being recognized for a fraud. That experience no longer troubles me as it once did, and there will come a day when it will no longer trouble you. The human desire to belong, to follow those social rules without error and to disappear seamlessly into the crowd, is not a matter of language, but a matter of time. Rarely do we uproot ourselves from our comfortable surroundings, plunge ourselves into the unfamiliar, and immediately feel at home. With each passing day, we feel a bit more at ease.

I put the question to you now, gentle reader. What misfortunes have you suffered in foreign lands that wouldn’t make a local blink, but to you signaled the end of days?

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  1. Lucus:

    I once tried to buy onions in Madagascar without weighing them myself. The shop assistant directed me to “pesez les oignons”, which I interpreted, and repeated, as “baisez?”. The conversation then went on like that for a couple of more rounds until she pointed out the weighing scales.

  2. Melissa:

    Oddly enough, I never had this problem even in a place where the 3 languages I know fluently are not spoken at all. Never really went to a supermarket and buy things alone, but had been to other shops before and give cash when required. I normally looked at the screen that states how much I need to pay, considering my numbering skills in Polish is not too fluent after 10. I also generally fail to greet folks when entering shops but most think because I am not familiar with their culture, which is rather true. So in that case, I smile at the seller. It works too in places where I am fluent in the local language.

  3. Julie:

    I felt this way exactly my first few times at the German grocery store. But that’s not my contribution. My first day ever in Germany, with only the self-education experience described in this article, I got separated from my husband (who speaks the language) at the train station; he was forced to stay on the train while I had all the luggage on the platform. I didn’t know how to ask for help, no one stopped to help the crying woman in the hallway (as is typical German culture; how hard is it to work a train station, weird girl?). I found an info booth and used words I picked up from German songs to try to explain what was going on. I didn’t know the word for train, it never came up in the mindless dialogue in the language books. All I could manage to say was that I lost my husband. To make a long story short, everything turned out ok, though I was petrified until the train carrying my husband came back.

  4. Charlie:

    Here in Austria, charcuterie is sold in multiples of 10g or decagrams. I knew this but as I confidently strode to the counter for the first time alone, I somehow temporarily thought a deca was in fact 100g.

    I asked for 2 deca, was given a strange look by the server, but received my packet of meat all neatly wrapped.

    Of course when I got home I found I’d gone to all that effort for 2 tiny slices of salami.

  5. Kate:

    I have been studying Italian for years, and have arrived at an advanced level. However, when in an unfamiliar situation in Italy, I still approach it as I have for years: I alert them immediately that I am not a native speaker, thereby minimizing their expectations, and I usually get a “but your Italian is so good!” for my efforts. Case in point, I went into a farmacia in a small town in Tuscany to buy contact lens solution, which I didn’t know how to translate into Italian at that time. Instead, I said in Italian, “I’m looking for, how do you say it, the liquid one uses to put their contact lenses in…?” The woman smiled and said, “soluzione per lenti a contatto?” I smiled and repeated it, letting her know she had just taught me how to say this, which pleased her. It was a positive interaction for us both.

  6. Linda McIntyre:

    I have been attempting to learn Italian for a few years and recently found myself in a small town in Italy where NO ONE
    spoke English. The restroom was outdoors and it was necessary to ask for toilet paper inside the store (apparently, the locals steal it). Nerves took over and when I asked for this item, I actually asked for postcards. In response to the confused look I received from the cashier, I added “for the bathroom”. More confused looks until the cashier surmised that I didn’t mean postcards but, rather, toilet paper. Very embarrassing!

  7. Angela:

    Thank you for this! So glad we’re not the only ones who felt like this! It made my husband and I giggle out loud as we remembered our own first ventures into a French supermarket. Back then we were simply tourists buying supplies for a few nights at a time while we toured the coast in our VW campervan. We would anticipate different scenarios and try to prepare ourselves but inevitably a new situation would arise each time that would render us speechless and mortified! Even when we felt we’d learned from the classic weighing mistake we would then forget this simple task as we did our rounds of the next supermarket and find ourselves running back to the fruit and veg section as quickly as we could to avoid holding up the queue even longer while the other tried to ignore
    the audible sighs coming from the locals who found themselves stuck behind the stupid English couple! We now live here and find ourselves happily explaining to other English tourists their mistake whilst withholding smug grins!

  8. Vanessa:

    This reminds me of my own French Folly. I was at the MCdonalds on the Champs Elysee and I decided to try my hand at ordering a coffee. It seemed pretty mundane. Of course, I was wrong and the French clerk showed me no mercy, he said in his French-accented English, “Please just order in English”, ouch!!!!

  9. Ron Sheldon:

    On a country train in France I was berated by the ticket inspector for not having “validated by ticket”. I had no idea what he was saying so in the end he shrugged his shoulders and continued on his way. I felt very much like a foreigner.

  10. Lori:

    I was back in Poland, in a city where I have visited many times. I went to the supermarket to get some things to go with me on a 12 hour bus trip the next day. On my list was tomatoes and I knew the part about getting the produce weighed before going to the sales counter. I looked all over for the table where this was done, couldn’t find it, so thought things had changed since the year before when I visited. I took my bananas to the sales counter and when the sales associate told me to get them weighed, I simply looked puzzled and helpless. She went to the scale along the wall in the produce area. That’s when I realized I had been looking for the table in a supermarket in Hungary where I had lived before! It helps to remember what country one is visiting!

  11. Jakob:

    The first weeks of the year I spent in Sweden as an exchange student were a little confusing for me as well. I’d also go to the supermarket every day or at least every other day. Everything went smoothly, but at the end, the cashier would always ask me if I wanted a bag for my groceries. I usually had my backpack with me, so I didn’t need it, but I couldn’t really catch what the cashier was saying. She mumbled it so fast, so my natural reflex would be to say: “Ah?”, which in my native language is an interjection meaning: “Sorry, what?” In Sweden, however, it’s the short version of “ja”, yes. So I got about twenty bags I didn’t need or want before I finally got used to the phrase. =)

    Thanks for the blog post! It brought back some nice memories.

  12. Anastasia:

    I’m Russian and live in South Korea. Usually when I go shopping to a local supermarket I don’t have any problems passing through checkout. All I need to say is the last four digits of my phone (registered membership) to receive shopping points. But there was one time when person at a checkout thought that I was very good at Korean since I pronounce numbers quickly and clearly, so she decided to explain something to me all in Korean… i was not prepared… normally no one even talks to me in supermarket and now suddenly long, complex sentences. I said that I don’t understand but she kept talking, maybe assuming that I understand. A line of people behind me were now all looking at me… and I look foreign in this Asian-dominant country… felt embarrassed. Later on I found out she simply tried to tell me that I can use the accumulated points. =.=

  13. brenda evans:

    when first in france, (no French to speak of) a young man I had met started to speak to me and I kept saying ‘oui’ – came to find out later he was telling me to meet him on Wednesday at 8pm for a date! I have often wondered how long he waited for me as I did not understand a word he was saying!!!

  14. Micky:

    I liked your article, it’s good to see that you remember this incident with some humour. 😀
    I cannot remember having that kind of difficulties in foreign countries.
    Why? Because there are two simple steps to avoid certain culture clashes:

    1. Read about the culture and country you are planning to go to before you arrive there. The web can tell you all those lovely snippets in whichever language you want, so not speaking French dooesn’t mean you cannot understand French culture to a certain extend.
    2. Walk around with open eyes. Especially in the supermarket, just watch other shoppers. They walk over to the scales to weigh their vegetables? Do the same! Of course, that works best in bigger stores where there are many shoppers. I find that being aware of your surroundings is a tremendous help.

    Also: Keep traveling. Doing it is the best way of learning how to cope with culture related problems.

  15. Katie:

    I’m a student, taking a year in France as part of my course, and for an orientation day, we had to go to the Capital of the region, so the night before I ordered a Youth Railcard (the only way to travel from here is by train) and booked my ticket. The next day at the train station, having prepared the vocab and grammar I needed so as to avoid embarrassment etc I confidently walked up to the cash desk and told the man behind it that I wanted to pick up my Railcard. But pick up/buy is the same thing in French (prendre – lit. to take) but I didn’t understand this so it took me a good few minutes to realise that he thought I wanted to buy one. I then had to try and explain myself with much stammering and blushing – the one thing I wanted to avoid!

  16. Sak:

    Hehe! I’m glad I’m not the only one that fails at the check out. I tend to use the tactic of Smile and Nod and it usually works… okay only sometimes.
    It’s happened to me in Paris and now here again in Vienna. Learning the greetings beforehand might help out this monolingual English girl but I got it eventually.
    When entering a shop, taking your turn at the checkout, or passing someone inside an apartment building you say the greeting, ‘grüß gott’. When I first arrived in Vienna I was perplexed why sales people would say something that sounded exactly Biscuit to me.
    After a few months of smoothly exchanging greetings and thanks and goodbyes, I was awaiting my turn at the checkout the other day, ready to greet, but instead I blurted out with a huge smile, ‘Wiedersehen’! She was perplexed. Embarrassing!

  17. Clare:

    I too have had ‘weighing problems’ in France. It was in a little rural supermarket, where the locals spoke with a thick accent that sounded nothing like the French I was taught, just to increase the challenge. A queue of irate customers wished me dead with their eyes as the cashier tried to explain that I should have weighed my vegetables and got a sticker before I queued. Eventually she realised that however loudly she shouted the instruction at me, I was never going to understand. She therefore left the cash desk, marched furiously over to the scales and did the job herself, while her regulars muttered darkly about the uselessness of foreigners (not that I understood them, but I sure as hell got the general gist).

    On the whole I have fared better in Greece, where the novelty of a stranger mangling a few words of Greek tends to get treated leniently. Greeks, however, have an obsession with getting the correct money out of the customer, down to the last cent. If the bill comes to nine euros and ninety-seven cents and you hand over ten euros, in my experience they will still ask if you’ve got anything closer to the correct amount. When this first happened to me, I had absolutely no idea what on earth was being asked of me. Fortunately there was an English speaker in the line who could translate, or I fear I may have held up the queue until closing time.


    I was in Nice (Southern France, Nizza in most lamguages), in something like an advanced fast food shop, late in the evening.
    From the board above the desk, I ordered “Soup de Canard, s’il vous plaît”, duck soup.
    The clerk’s answer was “Le chef a parti.”
    This means primarily “The boss has left.”
    I was confused, because I didn’t request him to talk to his boss, but just to serve me a meal. And I wasn’t aware of having said or done anything that could require the boss’ intervention.
    He repeated his answer ten times, but I had definitely understood his words, but not their meaning.
    Finally I tried to order something different, which he found agreeable, and quickly prepared it.
    Later I understood that ‘chef’ in French also means ‘cook’ (as always in English, but never in German), and that soups are always freshly prepared by the cook, who isn’t present at night.


    But in general, I find shopping culture clashes less related to language or country, but to a strange segmentation of the human society in distinct groups, all with their own shopping culture and shops.
    If I am in my small German hometown and dare to enter a small bakery, the costumers, who have been shopping there at the same time of the day and the week since hundred years, and the owner all turn to the door, expecting to greet another one of them. When they see me instead, they gaze at me with a look that makes me look down at myself to assure me that I’m wearing clothes. And although I can still speak the local dialect fluently, I’m feeling like a Martian all the time.
    While in supermarkets, even in Russia, where I could neither understand a word nor read a letter of the language at that time, I never experienced notable difficulties.

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