Every international traveler fears that moment. You have unintentionally said something embarrassing/inappropriate or just downright stupid. Having traveled the world I should have overcome this fear but, alas, this fear always remains, packed away in my carryon bag. Every new culture you encounter is another opportunity to add to your list of personal faux pas.
Beautiful Romania, encompassing the mountains of Transylvania and lying along the historic Danube River, was the setting for my latest adventure in inappropriate phraseology. My partner-in-verbal-crime this time was Monte Shinkle, alum and pastor from Missouri. After seeing how popular brass bands are in the churches here I desperately wanted to join in. After all, surely they have an extra trombone lying around for visiting American seminary presidents? Doesn’t everybody do that?
I’ve been playing trombone for over forty years and still love playing, I’ve played before screaming crowds (my parents when I practiced in the early days) and in exotic places like Arkansas, New York, and Lithuania. Recently I even attended my college band reunion where I reconnected with my true trombone brothers. These brothers are the ones who don’t let the conventions of society (like dynamics and key signatures) slow them down.
Meanwhile back in Romania. I told my friend Monte Shinkle that I wanted to play in a Romanian church brass band. Monte promised to bring it up in an upcoming pastor’s meeting. I said, “Don’t do that . . . unless, of course, you just want to.”
At the meeting, we were told to introduce ourselves and Monte dutifully went first and then as he concluded he said, “And before my friend (me) introduces himself I want you to know that he is a trombonist.” The room froze.
Sensing that something had happened, Monte repeated the point. “He really is a trombonist.” The room broke into belly laughter and we just sat there, looking like the confused Americans we were. Finally, one of the Romanians leaned over and asked me, “Do you really play the trombone?” “Yes,” I answered. “Oh, so sorry!” he said. He spoke to the room in Romanian and then explained to us what had just happened.
You see, in Romanian culture, if you say someone is a trombonist it means that they are “a blowhard, full of hot air, a braggart.” They were thinking that Monte really knew their culture. Once the air had cleared and international relations restored Monte chimed in, “So I was right after all.” Thanks brother. They even taught me to say “I am a trombonist” in Romanian: “Sunt un trombonist.”
I traveled back to America, newfound knowledge in hand, and reconnected with my section mates from college days. My daughter Laura attends the same college and not only majors in music but also plays on the Lady Tigers basketball team. I had an idea. After the Reunion concert, I could slip over to her basketball game and join in the pep band. My wife thought it was a terrible idea since it would embarrass daughter Laura no end. This only strengthened my resolve.
The OBU Pep Band welcomed me with open arms (and slides?) even though it had been thirty years since I had sat in those same bleachers (and played some of the same songs–seriously–buy some new music, gee whiz). They were rowdy and loud, just like we were back in the day. Well done, next generation of trombone players. I salute you.
Sunt un trombonist.