A popular trend in social media is that of “Throwback Thursday,” when people post pictures of themselves surrounded by family on their wedding day, holding newborns who are now college students, or posing with high school friends. The story another language specialist told me the other day involves neither big hair nor arena rock, although I used to envy those young men whose hair was always bigger than mine. The only time I ever came close to “80s hair,” I needed so much gel and hair spray that I felt as if I had a plastic sculpture on my head.
The city where I acquired temporary big hair was also the scene of a traumatic experience for my coworker, who shares my passion for other languages. Let’s call her Charlotte. Like me, Charlotte takes it as a compliment when listeners cannot place her accent. Since her language of predilection is German, she has often been mistaken for Dutch or even Austrian. During my extended stay in Paris, France, I was at first asked if I was Spanish or Italian. Then as I gained further proficiency, people guessed Swiss or Belgian.
Most visitors to France have heard that the locals will not respond if they hear English. My sister globetrotter, who spoke no French, was one such visitor. Both she and I had grown up with the assumption that if we see a nice policeman in the street, we can ask him for directions. After all, there was that Sesame Street episode where the lost Charlie looks for a policeman to help him find his way home. The officer turns out to be his Uncle Louie, but Charlie does not recognize him with his uniform on. Off come the hat, the badge, and the jacket, and Charlie quips, “Now can you help me find a policeman?”
Imagine 20-year-old Charlotte lost in a strange city. When she sees a uniform, she thinks she will be guided to the train station. This particular French police officer was not nice. In plain English, he was a first-class jerk, and this is putting it mildly. Upon being addressed in German (which turned out to be an even worse choice than English) he became enraged. Not only did he shout, You filthy German [blank. . . fill in the blank with the worst conceivable insult]! but he then proceeded to spit on her. Poor Charlotte! So much for using another European language besides English to soften the blow, and so much for approachable cops. My culturally nomadic coworker had no idea that hatred of the Germans was still so strong. And idealistic Sesame Street episode or not, I was dumbfounded by such an aggressive reaction on the part of a law enforcement officer.
Had she not been sobbing so hard, Charlotte the young girl lost in Paris might have told the officer, “My dad was a soldier who made you free!”