My best friend in the French Islands was the Google Translate app. Unfortunately, I’d retained about as much vocab from high school French as a one-year-old with colic. Therefore, the translate app became my sidekick and wingman. Before any interaction, I would look up the required phrases on my app and try to commit the words to memory. Then I would walk up to the store clerk or street food vendor, and boldly butcher the language. If they understood what I said (rare), they would respond in French. If I understood the response (rarer), I would smile and hope they didn’t require further verbal interaction. Usually, this worked perfectly. My vocabulary slowly expanded as I talked to more people. I began to feel confident that I could struggle through any situation. That is, until the memorable day when I needed to fill my water tanks. Although the anchorage was right in the downtown area, there were no marinas in sight. As far as I could tell, there was nowhere in the city to fill up. This meant finding the closest marina that sold water. I took to the streets to crowdsource some answers.
To set the scene:
I am in Fort-de-France, Martinique. Everyone is wearing a stripey shirt and carrying a baguette. Red berets are pushed back on heads because of the heat.
I ask in French: Where are the water?
I get pointed in the direction of the ocean, lapping at the harbor-front
I ask in French: I require drinking for the liquid
I am told that noon is too early to be drunk
I declare in French: My boat! She needs the water!
I am told that there is deeper water to anchor in if I go further away from the beach
I implore: I need the beverage to drink on my boat
I am pointed towards a food vendor selling bottles of water
In desperation: Where is the big water for the filling inside my boat?
Ah! You wish to fill your boat? Go to the marina around the corner and…… the rest I didn’t understand, but I had enough to go on (or so I thought).
Excitedly upping anchor, I motored around the corner to the marina on the other side of the fort. Normally, the etiquette is to call the marina on the VHF before arriving. However, flushed with the success of my previous venture, I decided it would be better to sort everything out in person. The marina consisted of a series of private slips for boats, and one long pier that had no boats on it. It also had no cleats on it, and no visible evidence of water or fuel hookups. But I wasn’t about to let that stop me. Bringing Gecko alongside, I left her on the mystery pier, and walked through a gate that locked behind me. The marina office was dead-ahead. So far, so good. I realized that I had accidentally left my trusted best friend, Google Translate, on board. Since the gate was locked, there was no turning back. Luckily I had memorized the phrase: ‘I am searching for the water for my boat’. Using this phrase, I proudly announced my presence to the lady at the desk. Her name tag read Marcella. Marcella said … something… to me and indicated the area outside her office door.
“The man. He is coming”.
Ah, I thought. The man who has the water. I can wait. After about 15 minutes, a scruffy old man appeared, wearing a dirty Tshirt and board shorts. As he reached for the door knob, I noticed that he was missing the tips of three of his fingers. His hair stuck out around his head, and his shoes were held together with string. He seemed an odd bird to be working at such a fancy marina, but I was in no position to question things. Nor could I, even if I wanted to. I smiled at him.
“I am searching for the water”, I announced in my best French. He nodded and pushed open the office door. I grabbed it and stood in the doorway while he talked to the Marcella in rapid French. Seeing me on the threshold, she beckoned me to enter. I sat while they talked for about ten or fifteen minutes. Then the man got up and left. Marcella turned to me and I repeated my request.
“Where is your boat?”, she asked. This one was easy to understand, and easy to answer.
“There” I pointed.
“And you have a reservation?”
“No. I need the water for my boat.” I’m a one-trick pony.
Marcella’s expression changed. She opened Google Translate on her desktop and started typing furiously. Then she turned the screen towards me.
“You just showed up and took a place on the dock without telling us? What if someone needed that slip? You cannot arrive without a reservation. You might have someone’s spot! Where is your boat?”
Thinking of the long empty pier with no cleats, I sincerely doubted that anyone coveted that particular real estate. As I wasn’t able to tell her this, I smiled and pointed at a large map of the marina that was hanging on the wall.
“I am here. I need the water for my boat”
Marcella didn’t look, but began clicking away again.
“Marcella’s mad!”, I realized. “But she can’t yell at me because I won’t understand. What a relief!” I sat serenely while the typing continued. She was telling me the price of staying in the marina. Suddenly I realized our problem. She thought I had showed up and taken someone’s slip! I motioned for the keyboard. Scowling, she slid it over.
“Please. I just need to fill my tanks with water. I am tied up on the long pier that has nothing”.
“Oh!”, she typed. “Water is what the man wanted too. You must go around the corner.” Suddenly we were friends. She slipped her arm through mine and walked me out of the building. I asked her to open the gate for me so I cold get back to my boat.
“I am sorry my English is bad”, she said in English.
“No, I am sorry my French is bad”, I responded in French.
We smiled and parted. I breathed a sigh of relief, and vowed to never leave home without my rosetta stone again. And if I ever get in trouble, I’m pretending I don’t speak the language. Being type-scolded is so much better than the verbal alternative.