Lost in Translation

I am sure I could have come up with something more clever for the title, something not already starring Bill Murray in a foreign country, but this is where I landed. So far, most of my experiences revolve around the use of very poorly spoken French, so it only seemed fitting....hopefully, I can paint the pictures more accurately in English. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Driving Miss Daisy

I’ve been hiding in my room for the last hour. Why, you ask? For the most obvious reason, of course. I just made a spectacle of myself in the lobby.

The lobby is very large – across from the main reception counters sit a collection of plush chairs, couches and chaise lounges, available for hotel guests and visitors to meet or wait for appointments. More often than not, these seats are occupied by groups of rather bored looking men, staring at their cell phones or like Chris at a dinner party gone past 8pm, asleep sitting up. Such was the case this morning.

I returned from dropping the girls off at school, feeling a bit springy from the walk. As I entered the lobby, I looked over at the collection of men on the far side and proudly shouted, “Bonjour, Declan!!” while waving happily. It only took a second of blank stares to realize my mistake. It was not, in fact, Declan who I was waving to.

The good news is that my response was spot on. I squinted, laughed loudly and for the benefit of everyone now looking me, pointed out that it was not Declan at all. “Ah! HAHAHA, non Declan!” I announced, then sprinted to the elevators as if it were all part of my morning exercise.

The bad news is that, somewhere in the city, there is a very confused man who thinks he is being stalked by a very enthusiastic American.

I suppose I should explain who Declan is. Declan is my driver. Well, not mine exclusively, but he is, essentially, available to take me wherever I need to go. He was introduced to me on the second day we got here and I was told that all I had to do was call him and he would be there.

To me, one of the greatest things about our current location is that I can walk. I can walk to the market. I can walk to restaurants. I can walk the girls to and from school. But Declan will have none of it.

One afternoon soon after we arrived, I walked the girls over to the Glass Center, our local market. As we walked back up the drive to the hotel, Declan stood on the corner. When he spotted us, he looked shocked, and yes, perhaps just a little hurt. “What are you doing?” he said. “Why don’t you call me? I am prepared for you! Where did you go? I will take you!” All in all, he was quite distraught. I felt horrible. I told him we had only gone to the market (disapproving stare) and that it was ok, we liked to walk.
At this point I had to question his viewpoint on the overall health of Americans. I don’t know if he is under the impression that we are weaker than most, because his response was, “You do not walk. It is not good for your legs. I will drive you.” Needless to say, this came as a surprise to me as I was under the impression that walking WAS good for my legs. And considering that the Glass Center is approximately 2 blocks away I figured that even in my apparent weakened state, it was not so bad.

At the same time, I must realize that this is his job and he takes it seriously. We could all learn a bit from Declan.

Declan is from Nigeria. He came here about 10 years ago with his wife because life was hard in Nigeria, he said. It was a struggle to find work. So, he came here speaking Ebu and English, but learned French on the street finding any work he could. He worked in markets doing anything – including something involving a wheelbarrow. I didn’t catch that portion of story as he tends to go back and forth between heavily accented English and French. But I did understand that he has an 11 year old daughter and a 9 year old son and that his wife is a pastor. I also know that he is a Christian and that his enthusiasm for his faith is both contagious and inspiring.

One day, he asked me if I was a Christian or Muslim and when I responded that I was a Christian, he thanked me with such excitement that it took me a minute to realize what he was thanking me for. It was as if I had done something incredibly remarkable, like win an Oscar. “Yes, I would just like to thank my parents, my third grade Sunday School teacher, my religious studies T.A., and most of all, my devoted husband and children who never gave up on me…” Needless to say, I was very pleased with myself, especially when he told me that I was his sister.

Here, in Gabon, he has worked hard. And now he appears every morning at the front of the hotel, impeccably dressed, ready for his role as primary driver for the “Bechtel Wives” as we spouses are called. But it's a steady job with a new, white 15-passenger van. And even if the van is full of privileged corporate wives, I suppose it is a good job. He refers to the wives by their husbands’ names: Madame Eric, Madame Frederic, Madame Christopher. I counteract this cultural mannerism by using my first name as frequently as possible in conversation. This means that I can often be found babbling on in the third person, while Declan just nods and smiles, chuckling to himself.

If he is, as I suspect, thinking, “Crazy American”, he does not show it. He is painfully polite and altogether lovely, and has finally progressed to calling me "Madame Ann." I don't dare correct him.

We're pals, me and Declan. We even have our own little ritual whenever we return to the hotel from a trip around town:

Me: Thank you, Declan!
Declan: Ok, ok, thank you, Madame! Ha ha ha…
Me: Oh! Yes! Thank you…ha ha ha
Declan: Oh! Ho ho ho. Thank you very much!
Me: Yes! Thank you very much!

And so it goes as I begin slowly backing away from the van, smiling and waving. “Ah! Ha ha ha..” It’s a complicated dance, but it seems to work for us.

The bottom line is that without Declan, I would be stuck. No car, no directions, no mobility. And I suppose, without this job, he would be stuck in a different way. It doesn’t seem fair or right, but then again, there is a richness to everything. After all, it is not the job that brings dignity to a man, but the man who brings dignity to the job.

I am supposed to go look at some apartments later today, and so I will call Declan to meet me out front and off we will go – Declan behind the wheel with African music playing on the radio and me with my face pressed up against the window of a nearly empty 15-passenger van.


  1. 15-passenger van! haha that is a bus!

    It is good to take pride in your job. That is something that Americans don't do very often.

    Also congratulations on being a Christian! What an honor!

  2. This reminds me of climbing Kilimanjaro a number of years ago and having my own "sherpa" to carry all my stuff. I felt terrible about turning over my things for him to carry but in much the same way as Declan he was hurt and offended that I would not properly let him do his job that he was so proud of.
    What an experience you and your family are having...I am jealous beyond words. Keep on keepin' on sister! We miss you on this side of the pond but would have it no other way. Love and peace to you and yours:)