Sitting down in my chair the dinner party proceeded as normal. In an attempt to avoid redundancy I would direct all interested parties to review my previous post about “the life of a party” to see my take on such social matters. The toastmaster was chosen and began espousing his love for the family, friends and specific people whose birthdays either just passed or were coming up. Glasses were filled, emptied and refilled many times. As the food began diminishing and some voices became slurred, one brave soul stood up and tilting his glass towards me gave a long toast to me, my country, and America. Thinking to myself something great about the brotherhood of man, how cultural barriers are so pliable in the face of humanity, and other such nonsense, I arose and we embraced heartily and downed our drinks. Sitting down I couldn’t help shake these large thoughts, ever the derivative of a good buzz. Searching the cockles my mind I realized that I lacked the basic faculties of the Armenian language to properly express my love for such a country, her appreciation for family, her beautiful woman and the valiant warriors which have fought off foreign invaders for over 3000 years. Reaching in my pocket for my pocket sized English/Armenian dictionary hoping to find some page explaining the proper way to conjugate the phase “you are all my Cold War brothers” I realized that no one had yet toasted to the impetus of this party… the new Stove. The stars were aligned that night my loyal and patient readers!... Unfortunately they were not aligned in my favor. I thought to myself, how lucky am I to have come upon such a gross oversight! I flipped slyly to the “s” section. Not finding it there I moved on to the “o”, glancing quickly down at the first translation of the word for “oven.” I gathered myself, excited to remember that the verb “to want” is an exception, and conjugating it properly in my head rose to speak. alas I glanced a little to briefly at the dictionary and apparently not appreciating the plain font of this version didn’t fully appreciate the ever so slight bend at the bottom right of the character. In the Armenian this changes the sound completely and can make all the difference in a words meaning.
Motioning for the glasses to be refilled, I launched into my toast. Someone great at some point in time said that brevity is the soul of wit. I, not one to normally subscribe to this sort of nonsense have been lately forced by my poor language acquisition abilities to justify my terse speech with this sort of thing. Seeing the Americatsi rise to speak the audience of Armenians present quickly became quiet, waiting to hear some other phrases butchered, and find some humor to take home to their neighbors. Raising my glass I thanked my mother and sister for the food, Armenia for her wonderful Vodka, which is so much better than any American whisky (they love that one), and raising my glass high finished with, “here is to your new oven!”
Or at least I thought I did. By the sharp intake of air and shocked faces I suppose I should have realized that either it was a cultural faux pas to toast to newly acquired American engineered appliances, or I had just badly butchered some word. Instead I continued to try and drive my point home by continually raising my glass and saying “new oven, to your new Oven. New Oven, NEW OVEN!” Feeling my host father firmly grasp my arm and pull me downwards, he quickly launched into some toast about the newly married couple who had just arrived at the party. I was perplexed.
Still baffled by my ill-fated toast, the party ended and I went to bed. Awaking the next day I approached my host sister (who speaks pretty good English) and somehow forgetting about the previous reaction of native speakers, asked how she enjoyed her new oven. She turned sharply to me and said, “why you keep say that word? It is bring great shame to family, great shame!” Returning to her task obviously disgusted with me, I went to language class very confused with the situation. While walking to class with other American volunteers I told the story to not much reaction. We enjoyed ourselves reliving stories of prophylactics and ice cream from the first two weeks of our service.
The first 15 minutes of each day of class we are free to ask any cultural or language questions of our very able trainers. As my turn came round I began telling of my doomed cheers, never actually saying the word. Inevitably my teacher laughing (hoping to have another fun story to tell the other trainers later over lunch) asked what it was that I said. I, repeating word for word from the previous night said, “I want to toast to your new oven.” I swear that her gasp almost caused her to faint. Regaining her composure she looked around to see that no one with any sort real knowledge of the Armenian language was around. Lowering her voice she informed me of the proper Armenian word for oven and said, “please Dominic, promise me that you will never say that word again. It’s not safe.” Inevitably we asked her what the word meant. She said she couldn’t tell us. We asked her to motion what it was, she refused. Someone asked her what would happen if they called a girl on the street my version of “an oven.” She made it clear that any right thinking and mildly chivalrous Armenian man would be forced to defend her honor and at the very least maim me severely.
After many awkward interviews with local youths who I though might divulge this translation, I have gathered that my word for “oven” actually is something closer to the Armenian version of the English “c” word. I won’t go into details (I’m sure the kids know what I’m talking about) but apparently my mispronunciation of “oven” was like the “c” word but much more offensive. I know what you may be thinking… how is that possible. I must say that I don’t know, I thought there was nothing worse than that word too. I have deduced that this word combines the “c” word with a reference to experienced “ladies of the nights” while being suggestive that many generations of the person’s family has a long history of this sort of work. One teenager’s particularly insightful explanation made me aware that there also is a very physical and dirty element to it.
Thinking back to how mortified my immediate family must have been at my offensive outburst, as I repeatedly accused all present of such horrible things, I can’t help but thank my lucky stars for my host families ever present patience and lack of even the basest respect for my language abilities.