My neighbor asked me to accompany him to a wedding. As the sole American in town — let alone one of just a few dozen in the country — townspeople often asked me to join them for local events.
I was living in the Republic of Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps volunteer, and my neighbor knew that I needed to get out into the community to test my proficiency with the local language.
The wedding hall was packed. The bride and groom sat in the front of the room on an elevated platform, surrounded by their closest friends and family members.
We dined on plate after plate of rice pilaf as music blared in the background. One by one, well-wishers passed before the bride and groom, raising a glass brimming with vodka and toasting to their good health.
To my surprise, my neighbor encouraged me to do the same. I was new to the country. Publicly speaking in a foreign tongue was not yet something I had mastered, let alone something I had ever done before. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agreed.
I shuffled to the front of the room and hoisted my glass. With my neighbor whispering a proper Azerbaijani wedding toast in my ear, I recited the words that I understood loudly and clearly for all to hear. When I finished, the room fell utterly silent.
The music ceased. The guests stared at me with wide eyes. And the bride and groom looked at me bewildered.
I looked at my neighbor, who looked back at me quizzically. Perhaps my good grasp of the language impressed them, I thought.
An English teacher, who I knew from work, came through the crowd and spoke to me in English.
“Mr. Robert, why did you wish the bride and groom a happy death?”
“I didn’t,” I responded. “I wished them a happy life.”
“Eh, yes,” said the teacher. “But you wished them a happy death. Death and life sound very similar in Azerbaijani. But it is OK, the bride and groom liked your toast very much.”
With that, the music and crowd began to return to normal. Some politely laughed at the obvious faux pas. The teacher walked back into the crowd leaving me behind perplexed. Eventually, I returned to my table for more pilaf with my new friends.
Later, I learned that while everyone was stunned by my toast, it was just a funny misstep by a foreigner and certainly not a matter of life and death.
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