It’s happened to the best of us, and usually at the worst possible moment. Misunderstanding a foreign word or phrase can have hilarious or disastrous results, but when you make a mistake, you’ll remember it for a long time.
“Let’s stop and eat.”
My mother and I were somewhere between Landquart and Chur, in eastern Switzerland. I’d wanted her to see the country I loved so much, and we were enjoying a week of travel by rail, the best way to see Switzerland. Having started from Zurich, we thought we might go all the way to Bellinzona, in the sunny canton of Ticino, where Italian is the main language spoken. I’d been thinking about Italian food all morning, but my mom was hungry at the moment and really wanted to stop for lunch.
Outside the snow was falling, fast and heavy. My mother’s face was bright like a child’s as she gazed in wonderment at the scenery beyond the train window. We were as high as the treetops, and watched the snow fall from steel-gray skies as we descended into the valley approaching Chur. I checked the timetables and figured we could grab a lunch at the station in Chur and still get a train to Bellinzona, arriving in the afternoon.
“Okay, we’re here. We’ll cross the street and eat at the station café,” I said. Every train station has a café, either within the station itself or just outside. In our case, we had only to cross the deserted, snow-covered street to enter the warmth of the café.
This was German-speaking country. I don’t speak German. Even after a year in Fribourg, where both French and Swiss-German are spoken, I had concentrated on French, so reading a menu was a bit of a challenge. I knew just a few words.
“Look, schweinen leber. That’s pig, so it’s either ham or pork, and comes with frites (fries). Sound good?” My mother nodded happily and we ordered two lunch specials, plus a couple of beers.
Our plates arrived, and the pork or ham didn’t look like either pork or ham. The thin slices of meat were covered with a brown gravy. My mom took a bite and make a face. “A little gamey,” she said, and picked up her glass of beer for a long swallow. I tried mine. Ugh. Mom was right (of course!). We ate fries and drank beer. The schweinen leber remained on the plate.
Before boarding the train to lovely, sunny Bellinzona, I bought some chocolate and a German-English pocket dictionary on display at the kiosk. Back on the train, I opened the dictionary to look for the word leber. Leber, I should have guessed, means liver.