I am often intrigued, sometimes mystified, other times fooled, by the names of people, places, and things.

When I was reporting for newspapers, I had to learn to be careful with names like Chris or Leslie or Terry. Were they hims or hers? And, of course, the idiosyncratic spellings of some of the people I wrote about: Tyron, not Tyrone, Gray, not Grey; Roger Nielson, but Erik Nielsen. I once misspelled a wheelchair archer’s name Bredick, instead of Vredik, and I’m bothered by it to this day.

Of course, those names were easy compared to those I had to contend with during my first two years in the newspaper business. Still in high school, I was hired as a correspondent from the village of Hastings for a community newspaper in Cobourg. A long-standing Hastings custom was to give people nicknames: Onions Radford, Boney Heath, Carrot-top Sherwin — no relation to Sewer Rat Sherwin –, Squinter Wilson, brother of Bison Wilson. Those who didn’t have catchy sobriquets were simply called by their father’s names, even the females: mine was Tony, my friend Nancy was known as Ray. Having to interview Bucky Beavis once, I had to ask him his real first name: Jerry. Or was it Gerry?

On my first forays in Europe, the idea that place names were often translated was a revelation, and a source of considerable confusion when, for example, I hit Ireland’s Gaeltacht and the names of towns and villages on my Michelin map bore no resemblance to the Gaelic street signs. Aiming for Ballinagh in County Cavan to visit a friend, I was uncertain the sign welcoming me to Béal Átha na nEach had me in the right town, but a local man confirmed it for me. He even pointed me to the Quinn house, a large blue bungalow directly across the street from where we stood, kitty corner from McEwen’s Pub and Funeral Parlour. If I understand the need for dual place names in bilingual countries, why does Paris remain Paris in English, but London is Londres in French?

Names of things can be just as tricky.

Yes, I’m ashamed to admit, I once tried to get a room in a Hôtel de Ville in a small town in Belgium. OK, in my defense, it was my first time in Europe, I was on a bicycle, it was October, I was tired, the few campsites and hotels in the area were closed for the season, and I didn’t speak French at the time. I was desperate. And to further my defense, I only got a few steps inside the door before I realized it wasn’t that kind of hotel. I spent the night instead in my tent, mostly sleepless, on a patch of gravel behind a café near Mons. And I knew, smarty-pants, that café didn’t mean terrain de camping.

It wouldn’t be the first or last time I made a glaring mistake in my travels. At least the brothel I inadvertently checked into on a very rainy day on that first cycling trip through Belgium had rooms for rent. And a bar where I could get something to eat and a beer – from a constantly revolving succession of rather attractive barmaids. I eventually clued in when, during a break in the parade of customers, one of the barmaids came to sit at my table. Offering to buy her a drink, she opted for champagne, the cost of which crossed me off the list of prospective clients for the house specialty. I retreated to my room at the first opportunity.

On a ski trip to Switzerland, I saw signs for raclette on every second restaurant. As a food lover, somewhat adventurous, I had to try it, even if I had no idea what raclette was. Some kind of meat dish, vegetable dish, appetizer, or dessert? When I realized I had to cook the assortment of potatoes, cheese, and sliced meats myself on the small oven placed before me, there was a moment of panic. The server’s instructions were little help given my monolingualism at the time, so I had to peer surreptitiously at the other tables and follow their lead. I struggled through and, ultimately proud of myself, decided to splurge on dessert. I ordered a butterscotch sundae and a café Liégois, believing the latter to be similar to a Spanish or Irish coffee. Wrong again. When the server arrived with two ice cream sundaes, I simply pretended I knew what I was doing. And ordered an espresso. My swollen belly marked the end of that ski day.

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