Lessons Learned From Cultural Eavesdropping in a Cafe
Hesitantly, a young man and older woman eye a table at the rear of the cafe. My husband and I have already claimed the table next to it. Looking at us, the woman says, “I hope we don’t disturb you. We talk. A lot.”
My husband makes a joke, we laugh, and then we all take our seats. I open a document on my device and start to work. Mind wandering, I glance over at our table mates. Decide they must be mother and son, catching up on life. But while they are easy with each other, it is not that kind of ease. Unable to detach, I keep an eye on them discreetly.
Taking out a pile of papers, the woman passes them across the table to the man. “Shall we begin?’ she asks.
“Yes,” he replies, with a French accent.
My husband and I meet eyes. “French,” we whisper, smiling.
Now it is clear. She is his tutor, he is her willing student. And for the next hour, I am transfixed by their conversation, wantonly eavesdropping on their language lesson. It begins with a written text. He reads, she critiques and pauses often to explain the subtleties of English. The contradictions.
One of the first words he stumbles on surprises me.
“Doug, it is the animal?”
“No. It just sounds the same. Doug is a man. Dog is an animal.”
He shakes his head. “But it is the same. Doug. Dog. The sound is the same.”
“Close,” she says, smiling.
They move on to words containing the letter g. He hesitates on the word gerrymandering. A discussion of Chicago politics ensues. He seems confused. I don’t blame him. But I can’t tell if it is the politics or the sound of the word that perplexes him.
“This is amazing to me. The way the rules are constantly changing,” he says, his hands in the air.
“Yes. I know. This is our reality,” she replies.
The next word he pauses on is gibberish.
“Gibberish. It means nonsense. If you were to have a stroke and lost the ability to speak properly, you would be speaking gibberish,” she explains.
Her student nods thoughtfully.
Gore also stops him. “What does it mean?”
“Like bloody. But not gory. There is a difference. It’s subtle but. . . “
“Ah! I know gore. So, in France, I used to ride a motorcycle. And then I had an accident and I stopped. Because of the gore, you know.”
She smiles. “You don’t ride your motorcycle anymore.”
“No. No. Because I have a child, you see. His mother said I need to stop.”
Now they have moved on to words that sound the same but are spelled differently. And idioms.
“So if I am a good gardener, I say that I have a green thumb. Does that make sense?”
“Yes. Yes. From the plants.”
“And to cut away parts of an apple is to core it. So if something is rotten, we say it is rotten to the core. Meaning, it is rotted all the way through to the core.”
“Ah, down to the bottom. Yes. Yes.”
Grimacing, she tries to point out the different meanings of the word, close.
“We close the door. Pull it shut. But we also want to be close to a person we like. Near that person. Same word, different meaning. Close. And to take your clothes out of a dryer, say, it sounds very much the same.”
“Close. Close. Clothes.”
He stares down at the paper. Shakes his head. They laugh.
There is a discussion of invalid, meaning an injured person, as opposed to invalid, meaning something is not valid. This is followed by an explanation of the two meanings of the word, intimate.
I am exhausted for him. So too, it seems, is his tutor.
“How about we go over some geography now? Do you know the Great Lakes?”
She pushes another paper toward him and he begins to read about the five bodies of inland lakes in North America. A swelling of pride comes over me as I hear him read about them in his lovely French accent.
“You know,” she breaks in, “these lakes are saltwater lakes.”
“Really?” he asks.
My husband and I stare at each other over our computer screens and gently shake our heads no. It is so tempting to call her out on this but we know it isn’t our place. A few seconds later, as the Frenchman reads on, her mistake is made apparent.
“The Great Lakes are the largest body of fresh water on the planet.”
“Are you kidding me?” she blurts out.
My husband and I exchange looks of relief.
Cultural eavesdropping loses its allure for me when the conversation turns to baseball. Conversely, my husband’s ears prick up.
“Those are complicated plays she’s talking about. You could learn something,” he teases.
The thing is, I already have.