Tag Archives: language

Taxi drivers. You pricks.

Anyone who have ever flown into Lyon in France, knows that it is a god-awful drive of something like 30 minutes from the airport to even the outskirts of the city. Our company always used taxis to get us from the airport to the client, who was located too far from the rail station to make it a practical alternative.

The first time I landed there, I confidently hailed a cab and gave him the address. Off we went and 60 Euros later he deposited me at the client. Meeting over, back to the airport. But the return trip only cost 35 Euros. What had happened is that the criminal fraudster that was driving the taxi on the inbound leg had intentionally driven around knowing I would have no way of knowing.

Not in the words of a former American president: Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

The next time I went to Lyon I was prepared. I confidently hailed a taxi. When I got in, I asked the taxi driver from which country he was originally (he was clearly not born in France). He told me Turkey. I then ripped my GPS out of my bag, plugged in the client’s address, changed the language to Turkish and told him to follow the directions. Taxi cost: 35 Euros.

Dangerous Words

My language tutors here warned me about a particularly dangerous problem with Spanish and Portuguese.

Apparently there is a word in Portuguese for “embarrass” that means “pregnant” in Spanish. Now, I can understand that in the past the one could lead to the other. However, one needs to be very careful when traveling around that one does not become cockily sure of one’s language skills and cause personal (and professional) embarrassment by basically saying that one is a promiscuous cross-dresser in a business context.

There is another problem though.

Don’t always trust the locals. The other morning I went to breakfast and saw the milk standing there with the following tag: leite quente. I knew from other places that leite means milk and asked the waiter what quente means. He, with confidence like Albert Einstein describing relativity, said “cold”. I try to make mental associations between words so I’ll remember them and associated quente with quench (to make cold).

A little later, I was on my way to get vinte cervejas and thought I’d toss in a little flair to show my host how far I’d come with the language. I put the quente at the end – vinte cerevejas quente I boldly told the waiter.

The effect was not what was anticipated. There was a stunned look on everyone’s face and that look of bewilderment that could be associated with finding out that one’s dog can actually speak.

I did notice this and asked what was wrong, only to be told that quente means “hot”. So now I make sure I ask two people the meaning of a word before making my mental maps.

To the American Businessman

To most American businessmen:

Thanks for destroying the assumption that all American visitors are arrogant, overbearing, loud mouths who travel the globe irritating the locals.

Most American business people, in my experience, are deferential in another country and realise they are the guests.

Thanks for this.

Oh yes, and to the traditional American tourist – shut up. Forcing your hosts to listen to your screaming between your group is not the way to garner any admiration or respect. Speak at the same level as your hosts (you’ll still be noticed, don’t worry).

PS: South Africans are to Africa what American’s are to the world. South Africans are arrogant, overbearing, loud and demanding when tourist-ing in Africa. Must be the “biggest economy in Africa” thinking that makes us think we are simply superior to those idiots in other African countries. Perhaps the “biggest economy on Earth” has a similar effect on American tourists.

Eye Test

What is it about understanding (or rather, a lack of understanding) that forces us to use more – more volume for conversational misunderstanding, or in my case, more font size for the written form of misunderstanding?

I’ve caught myself on a number of occasions doing it and am now consciously trying to stop it.

I studied in the days before CAD was the only way to draw. Long, long ago there were things that dispensed ink, and “lead” (actually graphite) onto big pieces of paper. One used rulers and other things called French curves and made projections and arrows by hand. One, of course, moved one’s hand in strange movements to write dimensions using said ink. I hated sloppy drawings and forced myself to change my handwriting until it looked like it was printed by a machine – the Queen Bee has on a couple of occasions told the kids to get me to write something for them because my handwriting is like a Word document print out.

Back to the other day. I was writing down the sequence of something that I needed done. About 10 letters into point 1 I realised that I was doing it: using the size 40 font because the guy I needed to run the tests couldn’t speak English well. Realising my mistake, I slowly reduced the font over the next couple of lines until it was down to normal size for me. Imagine an eye test chart in the optometrists room.

I was thoroughly brought down to earth about the error of my assumption a little later when the same chap was trying to explain the difference between two Portuguese words and wrote that the one word was a “substantive verb” while another was like a “past participle”, all written in a beautiful (small and evenly sized) cursive script.

Double Translators = Zero Understanding

One of the great things about American Hotels is that everything one needs for business travel is always available. There is, for example, always ice available, day or night.

In the rest of the world, this is not so.

This is not good for me. I like to have cold water available during the night. Normally the mini-bar provides for my nightly needs, but on a couple of occasions, the single bottle provided has not been enough. I therefore, always, make sure of the availability of ice before going to my room for the night.

This almost led to an incident the other night.

I believe it is a common courtesy (and not to mention a necessity) to learn a couple of words of the language of the country one finds oneself in. The most important word in any traveller’s infantile vocabulary should be “beer”. One should be able to pronounce the word without accent and spontaneously, which usually requires a lot of practice. The best way, I’ve found, is to find some waiter and use the word frequently. One knows one is successful when the waiter doesn’t give the wide-eyed stare, restating the word with different accents, and just rushes off to the bar. In Brazil this is “cerveja”.

The second most important words are numbers – like 1, 2, 3 etc. In Brazil, one of the first words I learnt was 20 (vinte: pronounced like Vinci – like Leonardo da). This is pretty handy because phrases like “vinte cerveja” save so much ordering trouble.

But there can be problems.

Another thing one should be extremely careful of is hand signals. We (should) all know that nodding is not universally accepted to mean “yes”; sometimes it means “no”. I scuba dive. It is a common courtesy, if not downright safety critical, to frequently ask one’s “buddy” if they’re “ok” – the hand gesture for this is thumb and forefinger closed in a circle and the other three fingers splayed like feathers on a wing – mimicking the letter O. I use this symbol frequently. I also use it to indicate “zero”. In Brazil this hand gesture means, to be precise, “fuck you”. Or, depending on the context, “I want to fuck you”.

On my way out of the hotel the other evening I asked the waiter if he could please arrange some ice for my room. The waiter asked me for my room number, and not having mastered the number 7 yet, I thought that I would just use finger gestures for my room number, 207. I should have realised there was trouble brewing when he started using words that were beyond my Brazilian vocabulary and the raised eyebrows that had dropped and become like a funnel between his now almost closed, scowling, eyes. At this point my host appeared and calmed the waiter down. He kindly listened to the waiter and then correctly explained my order.

When I got outside, I asked what the reason was for the aggression. Well, the waiter had “heard” me say “eyes”, which he thought to mean that whatever he’d seen me drink, I wanted more in my room. When he asked my room number, he “saw” me say “2?, no fuck you, 7″. At this point my host arrived and listened to the waiter. He then kindly explained that I did not know the “fuck you” meaning and that I really only wanted 7 beers in my room when I got back from dinner.

So that evening when I got back from dinner: I had seven beers in the mini-bar. And no ice.