Observing Life: ‘My road’ just won’t translate

Rob Garratt relives the most embarrassing moment of his life. Well, both of them.

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It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. OK, that’s not strictly true – it was the most embarrassing moment of the past 16 years of my life. I remember the previous embarrassing incident like it was yesterday: I was leaving the school canteen and I’d just, kind of, asked Lizzie Shiner out on a date. And she was laughing at me. And there was a crowd of people around me, who were also laughing at me. And pointing.

So I did what any embarrassed 14-year-old would do – and ran away. But there was nowhere to hide – it seemed the entire school was laughing. At me. Even the teachers.

In hindsight, that was a pretty offensive thing to do. Why, exactly, was the idea of going on a date with me so universally laughable? There’s perhaps only one person who can answer that.

Oh, Lizzie Shiner, if only I knew where you are today. My heart still beats for you ... with the rhythm of revenge.

Anyway, this latest contender for most embarrassing incident has a lot in common with that original event – except that I am now a grown-up. But it did take place in a learning environment. And it did cause a lot of people to laugh at me. And point.

Why? It all boils down to two syllables – “ma rue”. I was trying to say “my road” in French. And I was in a French lesson, at the rather excellent Alliance Française Dubai.

It started when I was asked to read some basic text that concluded with the offending two syllables. I noticed a co-student stifling a giggle.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, innocently. “You sound so English,” she laughed.

Puzzled, I replied: “Well, you’re not exactly French.” Which was true, because it wasn’t the teacher who was laughing at me – yet – and I proudly repeated the final sentence. This time, several more people giggled. “What are you laughing at?” I demanded. Their answer was to laugh more.

“Ma rue, ma rue, ma rue, ma rue,” I screamed, repeating the same identically perfect pronunciation each time.

By now the whole room was in fits of laughter. The woman who had giggled first began making nervous peace signs at me across the room.

I should have known when to quit. Instead, I turned to the teacher with a look that I imagine said: “Who knows what these crazy savages are laughing at when we both know I’m speaking perfect French?”

Her reply wasn’t what I expected. And it was just two syllables. I repeat those two words after her. And again and again and again. And as the waves of laughter build, break and crest over me even she begins to openly laugh.

I’m surrounded, once more, with people pointing and laughing. And not a Lizzie Shiner in sight.

French friends have shown more pity. “Ah yes,” said one gravely, as if I’d had a terminal disease diagnosed. “You English always have a problem with your Rs.”

• Rob Garratt is studying beginners’ French at Alliance Française Dubai. Find out more at www.afdubai.org