I wish I felt more confident in languages beyond English. The reality is that my little bit of high school and college French (which I’m increasingly sure I don’t remember) so influenced my language brain that I apparently speak Spanish with a French accent. Best guess? I can’t remember which words or prepositions come from which language and so I just run with whatever comes to me….
But I do believe that trying to greet someone in their language is a way to signal cultural respect.
And so, I’ve been practicing at minimum saying “Bonjour” (hello, or good day in French) or “Bonsoir” (good evening) here in Morocco as I mentally rehearse saying “Salam” or “as-salamu alaykum” (rough pronunciation of the Arabic greeting, peace to you).
Last night I was returning to the university on foot having enjoyed a lovely meal that I navigated in French. (That mental state alone would get me past saying “Ola” to a passer-by). Two lovely, 20-something women were coming my direction, wearing jeans, flowing tops, and dark headscarves. I switched my brain to recall-mode, “okay, greet them in Arabic…what was it? …sal…?…come on, they’re getting closer… they look so lovely and playful…alsal???…oh I want to be kind…come on, how do I say it in Arabic???…”, but time was up.
My internal thought-train stopped at the crossing as one of the young women confidently said to me, “Bonjour!” Her smile put me at ease. She radiated international charm and welcome. I forgot I was trying to remember Arabic. I went to into my new foreign-default: “Bonsoir!!”
I was blissfully unaware in that moment that I had been trying to remember how to greet someone in Arabic.
Behind me now, I heard the two young women squeal. “Ahhkkk” the confident one laughed to her friend. Hmmm, had I mispronounce a basic ‘good evening’??
Then I realized that she too had been mentally rehearsing her own polite greeting to me, this obvious western woman, the standard French hello — bonjour, that formally translates to ‘good day.’ Except, it is now dark outside and this western woman has just modified to greet with ‘good evening.’ “Ahkkk,” they laughed embarrassed, “‘bonjour’ asdafsadfadsd, ‘bonsai’ sdfsdfsd ahkkkk!” I heard behind me.
I smiled all the way back to the campus, three people trying to be considerate of each other and probably all three wishing we knew how to say “No Worries Mate! Thanks for trying!” in a language the other could understand. Perhaps our laughter and smiles did just that.