The Working Waterfront

Lost in translation and the international incident

There’s a reason people don’t woo women in German

Phil Crossman
Posted 2020-04-16
Last Modified 2020-04-16

By Phil Crossman

In August of 1964 I was stationed on the carrier USS Saratoga in the Mediterranean. A buddy and I took a few days leave and hitchhiked up the coast of Italy from Naples to the Riviera. We started out with a jug of Chardonnay, a big jug—the kind you balance on your shoulder to drink from, several baguettes in a backpack-like device as if they were a quiver of arrows, and lots of brie, all of which we refreshed as opportunities presented themselves, which they did regularly, along the way.

We were in uniform and got rides readily enough from all sorts of friendly Italians, most of whom spoke at least a little English. In La Spezia we opted for greater luxury and hopped a train to the Riviera. We disembarked on the coast in France, walked all the way across Monaco, just so we could say we walked all the way across an entire country, continued by train to Nice and Cannes, spent a couple of days in the area and returned to Italy.

We stopped in Sanremo, taking a room in a hotel there on the beach. It was littered with lovely brown bodies; the sun was shining; it was warm and comfortable, and we still had several days of leave left. We lay on the sand, in shorts we purchased in town, but kept our Navy caps on so everyone would know we were Americans.

On the first night we went to town, we took a table at an upscale restaurant and I ordered the only steak dish I saw: Tartare. When a plate of raw beef with a soft poached egg on top arrived, I was at a loss. 

One afternoon, I was reclined and exposing more pale Vinalhaven epidermis to the Mediterranean sun than any of my fellow sun-bathers had certainly ever seen. One of those was a young woman who, I having overheard her conversation with friends, I knew to be German. I’d taken German in high school from Ray Sennett and decided I could cobble enough together to constitute an invitation to dinner, perhaps with someone who could help me with a menu selection.

After discussing it with a comrade who also spoke a little German, I composed and memorized what I thought was a sweet proposition, an invitation to join me for dinner at a place in town. I was not initially confident that I could make myself and my intentions perfectly clear and so went out of my way to compose a few lines that I thought accomplished that. I wrapped my towel around my shoulders and sauntered over to where she and her scantily clad girlfriends lay enjoying the sun.

“Excusez-moi,” I interrupted inexplicably in French. “Kommen Sie mit einen auf das badezimmer, bitte, und stehen Sie auf uber der mit ein papierbogen. Habe Sie nicht zu klug?”

The degree to which she found my invitation more appalling than appealing was manifest in the speed with which she and her friends fled the beach and me for, presumably, safer ground. It seems that instead of inviting her to dinner, I’d—not very well, but clear to her—suggested she accompany me to the bathroom. And rather than trying to make it clear that I intended to pay for our evening together, I asked her to stand up against the wall and hold a piece of paper. Finally, instead of asking if she did not find my proposal appealing I instead asked if she was stupid, which she clearly wasn’t, given the speed with which she abandoned me.

Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven and is daily grateful for his marriage to Elaine.