As a World Next Door fellow—or a traveler in general— some lost-in-translation moments are inevitable. Although they’re rarely very consequential, they do make for some pretty interesting moments.

A few weeks ago, Jeff and I were spending time at a rural, valley-nested, lakeside coffee plantation in Western Rwanda. About halfway through the week, the Plantation Manager, Assistant Agronomist and I sat around the kitchen table racking our brains on how we might obtain ingredients to make an “American” breakfast and dinner, per the request of Anastasi, the woman who cooks for us.

My fallback breakfast staple is eggs in a basket, which I call one-eyed sailors (gets a laugh every time) and French toast, because almost everybody has eggs and bread. Milk was an issue, but after two days of discussion, someone brought a few bags of whole milk from Gisenyi, and so the French toast plan came to life.

I asked if they had things like cinnamon or vanilla or syrup for French toast. When they didn’t understand me, I showed pictures on my laptop. I am still chuckling at the sight of everyone gathered around my laptop, scratching their heads as they studied a picture of cinnamon.  We don’t have, they said, totally puzzled.

They didn’t recognize the picture of syrup, and I could never really explain what it was to satisfaction.  I decided to improvise with honey (which has crystallized into a thick paste), boiled on the stove with water until syrupy. I asked about vanilla. They got very excited and said, Yeah! We have! We have!

My improvised French toast. Not half bad!

My improvised French toast. Not half bad!

We gathered the next morning with the ingredients for eggs in a basket, and they stood around the stove ooooh-ing and ahhh-ing as I cut holes in the bread, cracked an egg inside, and flipped each piece of bread like a pro. We all enjoyed the dish, and it earned a table-wide applause.

The next morning I woke up, and the team was assembled in the kitchen as they had been the day before, but this time with the ingredients for French toast proudly displayed on the counter: eggs, bread, milk and vinegar. Wait, what?!  I picked up the vinegar and looked around like, What’s going on here? Everyone smiled and said, Yes! Yes! Vanirra!  It turns out, our accents combined with misplaced emphases, plus all the interchanging ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds make vanilla sound like vinegar.

They were crushed, and also laughing. They had no idea what vanilla actually was, and we had no electricity to show them on the Internet.

In the end, we made some spectacular French toast with plain old milk and eggs, and I sprinkled a tiny bit of sugar on each side as it cooked. We water-boiled the honey into syrup, and we sliced sweet bananas on top. Five of the six present loved French toast, and report they’ll make the breakfast for their families this weekend. Score! Anastasi, however, doesn’t drink cow’s milk, so she showed up at the table ten minutes later with her very own self-prepared Egg in a Basket. Double score!

Huh. I doubt this will taste the same as vanilla…

Huh. I doubt this will taste the same as vanilla…

Here I leave you with some other ‘l’ and ‘r’ exchanges that gave us pause…

  • Blooke! You will swim in the rake?
  • Yes, you are here with ARARM…
  • The organization is called Aflican Load (Road)
  • Licardo will pick you up?
  • Here you will find an example of servant readership
  • Yes, they have lapid services!
  • So, as we crose…
  • She will prepare the coffee for loast!
  • It’s laining! Blooke! The lain! The lain over the rake!
  • Now we will take bleakfast.
  • You have the right in your heart. Harejullia!
  • Ah! You are praying cards?
  • The students! The football, they are praying!
  • Ahhh, so glad I see you are arive!

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About the Author: Brooke Hartman is a year-long journalism fellow with World Next Door. In her other life, she was a clinical social worker, counselor, and disaster mental health graduate from Tulane University in New Orleans. Her favorites are: creative writing, travel, photography, weather patterns, and eating dessert. Any cupcake, any time.

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