Authors recall their youthful attempts to parlez the lingo of love

Donnez moi un kiss! It’s the new dating show with a twist — none of the couples speak the same language. Here, authors recall their youthful attempts to parlez the lingo of love

  • Brits and Spaniards who only speak their mother tongue meet on a dating show
  • Here, UK-based writers share their own romances that got lost in translation  
  • Simon Mills claims he can still taste the lip gloss of the girl he met in France
  • Emily Hill says her brief romance in Russia consisted of staring at each other  

Most of us have fallen, at least once, for someone with whom we have little in common. That attraction helps put aside the niggles of few shared interests or stuttering conversation. But what happens when conversation is non-existent, as you don’t speak the same language? A new dating show, The Language Of Love, aims to find out by filling a house with Brits and Spaniards who only speak their mother tongue. But Channel 4’s conceit is nothing new to these writers. Here, they share their romances that got lost in translation. 



UK-based writers share their romances that got lost in translation, as a new dating show puts Brits and Spaniards who only speak their mother tongue together in a house. Pictured left: Simon Mills  

Veronique from Cagnes-sur-Mer was 17 years old. She had a gorgeous, gap-toothed smile and favoured raspberry lipgloss.

Her and her mum (divorced, I think) lived in one of those coldly modern Cote D’Azur residential blocks. But beyond Veronique’s bedroom, the Mediterranean glistened. I remember the apartment’s sausage dog TouTou barking along to Euro pop on her mum’s radio. Veronique wore denim shorts and a baggy T-shirt. Her hair was scraped back into a high ponytail. I was dressed like someone from a Duran Duran tribute act: ripped jeans, blue suede pixie boots and an oversized dress-shirt with a frilly ruff (my dad’s).

Veronique spoke only pop-music English, words and phrases she’d gleaned by listening to Phil Collins and Elton John. So although we’d only just met, there was a lot of ‘love’ in our stilted conversations.

My French? Well, it was, quite literally, passable; I’d recently scraped a C at O-Level. Our romance began in an Antibes bar with smiles and communication conducted via a ruddy-faced French interpreter who demanded only a bottle of Kronenbourg in return for his service. ‘She really likes you,’ he winked after ten minutes.

We held hands and I asked her if she liked English pop music, quickly working out that ‘Echo and the Bunnymen’ might be translated as ‘Echo et les hommes lapin’.

Looking back, I don’t think this was the first time Veronique had trawled the boites of Antibes and Juan Les Pins looking for English boys. But I was 16, innocent and utterly smitten . . . and not averse to losing my virginity to a girl who looked like a teenage Brigitte Bardot.

Simon Mills said he can still taste the lipgloss of Veronique from Cagnes-sur-Mer, who he met as a teenager in France (file image) 

We drove in her Citroen 2CV and I recall being tongue-tied and nervous. ‘Je t’aime bien, Veronique,’ I offered, sounding like Rene from ’Allo ’Allo. Suddenly, Veronique found her voice. ‘Simon,’ she announced. ‘I don’t like you. I love you. Is a different thing.’ (‘Thing’ was pronounced ‘zting’). I melted like une creme glacee.

Unfortunately, our afternoon lovemaking lasted about as long as Duran Duran’s Planet Earth single. Embarrassed to almost mortification, I rearranged my frilly shirt and hitched a 2CV ride back to my friends.

No words were spoken, in any tongue, during that journey. As she dropped me off, Veronique turned for a pecked kiss and said: ‘Adieu.’ Not ‘au revoir’, I noted.

We never saw each other again. But 40 years on, I can still taste her lipgloss framboise.



Emily Hill (pictured) said it seemed like all the Russian boys her age had been shipped off to the army when she arrived in Moscow at age 18 

As soon as I turned 18, I ran away to Moscow to teach English because I was in love with Russia. There was a Russian lady nearby who tried to teach me the language, but while reading words was easy (Cyrillic is a phonetic alphabet) mastering the word ‘zdravstvuyte’ (their word for ‘hello’) wasn’t.

In books, I’d read about the wild passion of the Slavs — which sounded infinitely more exciting than pallid English boys — and they were always banging on about their souls.

Sure, they tended to die, but only after the best parties at which much dancing was done. So I was in high hopes — until I arrived and it became clear that all the Russian boys my age had been shipped off to the army to do military service in Chechnya.

Those that had exemptions were highly prized and Russian girls back then expected to get married in their 20s, so dating was serious business.

Still, all is fair in love and war and Russians are fearless in battle, so the girl I was living with appointed herself as an advance scout should one of the local males fall single and take a fancy to me.

I wasn’t overly keen on dating anyone I’d seen in her neighbourhood because the fashions on the housing estate in South Moscow ran to teenage boys shaving all their hair off save their fringes, which made them look ridiculous.

Emily said she eventually met a handsome boy, who couldn’t understand a word of English, which led their brief romance to consist of just staring at each other 

But one night, her girlfriends turned up at the door, and in great excitement ushered me into the presence of a handsome boy with (oh, miracle) all his hair. He had spied me from across a crowded metro station.

Hopes were high. But since he couldn’t understand a word of English and my attempt at uttering a ‘zdravstvuyte’ made me sound like I was having a stroke, our brief romance consisted of staring at each other while we were stared at by the gaggle of Russian girls. I squirmed as their giggles filled the silence, feeling like a panda unable to mate at the zoo.

Apparently, everything I’d read about the passion of the Russian male was true — but true romance needs words. ‘You had me at hello,’ was Renee Zellweger’s epic line to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. If only I had been able to say it . . .



Eleanor Mills (pictured) said Eka, who she met playing his guitar at a guest house, set her on the path to enjoying Indonesia 

It was 1994 — I was 23, between jobs and in search of adventure, so I took a plane to Indonesia simply because it sounded exotic.

I spent my first night in the giant metropolis of Jakarta pacing and fretting. The business hotel I’d picked as a safe starting point was so unfriendly I felt I might die of loneliness, thousands of miles from anyone I knew. Luckily, I got on a bus to Bandung the next day, where I found a guest house and booked a tour to visit some hot springs (other travellers, hooray!).

I noticed Eka as soon as I came down to breakfast. He started playing his guitar while I ate. ‘No Woman No Cry’ he sang plaintively, and the song made me relax for the first time since I’d arrived.

Eka was wreathed in sunlight, which picked out whispy bits of hair escaping his rather weedy, frizzy plaits (an attempt at Rastafarian dreadlocks, I assumed). But his skin was golden and his eyes kind.

Six Bob Marley songs later, he grinned at me and gestured to the bar. ‘Bintang?’ he said. It was the name of the local beer. I didn’t know anyone else in this hemisphere, so I nodded on my way to the minibus.

Eka was waiting when I got back from my day’s sightseeing. I bought us both beers and we sat on the veranda listening to tuk-tuks zoom up and down the road. Eka played his guitar (his repertoire was not extensive, I’d heard all of it that morning), and after a while, since conversation was difficult, Eka and I communicated in a more universal way.

It was pretty innocent, more companionship than anything else and the next morning we wandered around Bandung. But I’m ashamed to say that when I heard Three Little Birds being strummed on the veranda that night, I stayed in my room with a book. The loneliness had passed, I was off the next day with my new Dutch mates, and it was too exhausting trying to communicate only through the lyrics of Bob Marley.

Also, he was short and his allure, born only out of my desperation for company, any company, had passed. But I am grateful that he set me on the path to loving and enjoying Indonesia. The following months were some of the best and most vivid experiences of my life.



Clover Stroud (pictured) admits it was lust at first sight, when she met Dagir after joining her sister Nell at a travelling circus

The summer of 2015 was one of high passion and linguistic confusion, although the year started in a very different way. Newly divorced, I was learning about life as a single mum, supporting my children, who were four and two, on my own.

The end of my marriage had been ugly, so when my sister Nell asked me to join her on the road, with her travelling circus, I lit up.

I was to run a backstage cafe for the artists, writing a weekly column for a newspaper. Within a couple of weeks, I’d bundled the children — along with a makeshift cafe comprised of a gazebo, a camping oven and large quantities of bacon and buns — into the back of a caravan I’d found on Gumtree and joined the circus.

That was the Russian year; the year my sister had invited, as guest performers, a Cossack troupe from North Ossetia in the Caucasus mountains.

One of the Cossacks was called Dagir. Galloping around backstage in leather and furs, and embodying every kind of wild Russian cliché in the process, I admit, it was lust at first sight.

Over the course of an exhausting, exhilarating summer, I cooked breakfast, lunch and supper from my wobbly camping stove for the cast, scribbling up notes to file to my editor at the same time, while also having a passionate and sometimes confusing romance with the Cossack.

We drank a lot of vodka that summer, which might have tricked me into thinking I understood his very broken English. But he was also warm, hospitable and incredibly funny — and a bit of semantic confusion doesn’t really matter when you’re madly in love with someone. Physical communication goes a long way.

Clover said the romance of the mountains, the vodka, the horses and Dagir kept her returning until their romance ground to a halt (file image)

The language barrier got trickier at the end of the summer when, heartbroken that his visa meant he must return to Ossetia, I used my journalism as a passport to follow him back there, funding regular trips to the high Caucasus with pieces of writing.

He was as passionate about his homeland as he was about me, and often, after a long evening of what I think was discussion about Ossetian horse warriors, I’d realise I had almost no idea what he was talking about.

Still, the romance of the mountains, the vodka, the horses and this wild, strange man kept me returning for another two years, until, like many long-distance, linguistically-challenged romances, it ground to a halt.

I miss those days, and although I still speak no other Russian, I do know how to curse like a Cossack in the most colourful way.



Kate Spicer (pictured) said conversations with an instructor in Mauritius were exhausting because they had no language in common, but she really fancied him  

It was infuriating to arrive in South Africa for my best friend’s wedding and find the weather there in June was like a brisk late October day here. Sod this, I thought, the second the nuptials were out of the way.

I flew to Mauritius and settled into a hotel full of honeymoon couples mooning over each other. Within a few hours, I was tired of watching the newlyweds holding hands across their sun loungers, so I went off to explore.

By lunchtime, I’d had a couple of waterskiing lessons. I loved it and immediately went back for more.

There wasn’t much else to do as the only activities the other hotel residents were into were rather more horizontal. It also helped that my two instructors were gentle, charming, and drove speedboats. The time flew by!

After about four days, the more handsome of the two asked me if I’d like to try sailing.

With no language in common (I gave up French in school), our conversation was meagre. Exhausting. But as the days passed, with him repeatedly pulling me back into the boat off my skis like a particularly ungainly catch, we laughed a lot and I thought: ‘Yup, I really fancy him.’

For a couple of nights, we shared a few eager kisses and some staccato chat over beers on the beach.

The big climax came when he took me to his mum’s house for supper and then we kissed a few times on the beach, again.

By the third night — sick of listing items for sale in a boulangerie in a bid to make French conversation — it was clear we were both bored. So he invited his sister over. She spoke far better English and was longing to get out of her Indian Ocean backwater.

We enjoyed a very satisfying Franglais conversation about the benefits of being a working woman over a housewife. For a while, we were penpals. And, thanks to her brother (blow me if I can remember his name), I became a pretty proficient waterskier, too.



Kate Mulvey (pictured) said meeting Claudio during a gap year, at age 19, brought out a love of Italy

I met Claudio in the summer of 1982. I was 19, on a gap year, and on the lookout for adventure. A girlfriend and I were staying in Florence on the second leg of a trip round Italy, and somehow we managed to get invited to a fashionable party full of artists and creative types.

It may sound corny, but the first things I spotted were Claudio’s warm eyes. It was lust at first sight. He was older and seemed exotic, jabbering away in Italian.

The feeling was mutual and he sauntered over. ‘Ciao,’ he said. ‘Hi,’ I mumbled. We smiled. He said something in Italian, I responded in English. We laughed. Then radio silence. So we hit the drinks cabinet.

Our arms already around one another’s waist, we watched a couple swapping headdresses. He pointed at my striped top and pulled at his shirt. Whether it was the potent red wine or the euphoria that comes with great attraction, we slipped into a nearby room and hurriedly swapped outfits, emerging in hysterics.

Chemistry: Claudio and Kate

Everyone cheered — we danced with wild abandon, falling into an armchair kissing. Our clothes exchange had served as an ice-breaker and allowed us to connect through a shared sense of humour and love of mischief.

A passionate love affair had begun. Zipping through the labyrinth of cobbled streets on his Vespa, me clinging on tight, felt like the most romantic thing in the world.

In some ways, our enforced silence meant we never hit the thud of reality. We remained enigmas to each other, but the affection and the chemistry were real.

We learnt how to converse in charades and sign language. He was dreamier and calmer than me, so I became the clown — making funny faces at the waiter to get a laugh.

My favourite times were in his flat. We’d curl up and watch old American movies in bed (subtitles in Italian) while drinking wine — finally, we could laugh at the same thing.

I extended my stay for a couple of weeks, but there is only so much staring into each other’s eyes one can do. While I never saw him again, it was an affair to remember.

Not only did those feelings of young love etch themselves into my memory, it brought out a love of Italy. I went on to study Italian at university — and am almost fluent. Every Claudio has a silver lining!

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