Gantrisch Nature Park, Switzerland
I spent two weeks working on a farm in the Swiss Alps, and I have to say that it was probably the biggest cultural challenge I've ever faced while traveling. I found the farm through a program called WWOOF, which connects international volunteers with organic farms. This was not my first volunteer experience abroad, but it was the first tim I had volunteered on a farm.
I won't go into aggressive detail here, but I will say that my host will not soon be short-listed for any congeniality awards, and her hostessing skills lie somewhere between a nest of venomous snakes and a bear settling down for the winter.
Let's call her Sara. Sara had three cats, and cat humor is a big deal in my family, so I tried to bridge the conversational gap with a joke. One of the cats was a bossy young male, and he liked to climb up on the counter and knock things over.
"This is his house," I remarked. "We're just guests here."
"No, this is my house," Sara said. "I live here."
"Right, but he thinks that this is house," I said.
"I don't understand why he would think that. I've lived here for three years, and he's only been here for a year."
I tried again a few days later. Sara came home late from work, which meant that dinner was delayed. She came into the kitchen and found me with two cats on my lap, then apologized for the wait.
"Oh, it's fine," I said. "I was about to eat a cat sandwich."
Nothing. Zero. Zip. You know when you make a joke and no one thinks it's funny? It's so much worse when you idly mention eating someone's beloved pet and then you remember that there's a language barrier and you don't know if they're going to poison your food. Oops.
I did my best to keep my jokes to myself for the rest of the week. Sara was shocked at how quickly the cats warmed to my presence in the house, and I refrained from telling her that I had saved room for all three of them in my luggage - "Carry on, of course."
Still, it can be hard to hold back your laughter at some of the more graphic language errors that people make without realizing it. Sara frequently asked me to go to the basement and prepare "bags of bones, which I will sell at market." When I gave her a blank stare, she would frown and say, "I have already cleaned them off." (she meant "beans.")
When we were working in the garden, she would complain about "the barbers," who were taking their sweet-ass time (I'm paraphrasing here) to come above the ground. It took me a while to figure out that she wasn't angry at little men hiding out in the garden; she simply had trouble with the word rhubarb.
My favorite mistranslation was when Sara referred to her worms in the compost pile. She would throw food on the ground and let the worms eat it during the winter, and then, as she so eloquently explained "What she don't eat, I take it."
I'm not sure why she always lumped the worms under the singular feminine pronoun, but it was an endless source of amusement for me. It always summoned up the image of an over-indulged worm monarch, lying with her mouth open, waiting for Sara to throw scraps inside. Ah, yes. Another thing that would definitely escape translation.
Having a good sense of humor helped me survive what would have otherwise been a very bleak and uncomfortable experience with someone whose social grace was on par with a malignant, vengeful sea sponge. Sara would frequently down an entire bottle of wine and then list off her least favorite things about America. One night, she sat smoking an unfiltered cigarette (she smoked about 30 every day), and yelled at me for scrubbing a Teflon pan too hard.
"Teflon causes cancer!" she yelled. "We are not all Americans, we do not want to destroy the world." Grabbing the pan, she added "We do not know where cancer comes from, but THIS, it comes from."
She pointed one nicotine stained claw at me. "Clean more carefully."
Once again, I refrained from speaking my mind, but I couldn't help noticing the irony. I'm pretty sure that cigarettes cause cancer, I thought. Smoke faster.
(I would like to assert that Teflon does NOT, in fact, cause cancer).