Friday, 29 July 2011

Noelle's nanny job (London)

After a lesson one evening, a young student came to the pub with the exciting news that she’d found a job in Beijing as a nanny for a Western couple—diplomat husband and lawyer wife.  I asked, “Is that Valentino and Jeanne-Marie?”  Noelle nearly fell off her chair.  What a small world.

The loner hen (France)

There is a motley collection of animals on the farm: cows, turkeys and chickens, rabbits, dogs and cats.  The cows are left out in the fields to graze, and would only come in for their vaccinations.  The dogs and cats are free to wander around, although most of their time is spent in a horizontal position in the shade out of the hot summer sun.  Hard life being a dog or a cat.  The turkeys and chickens are kept in a corralled area, but on my visit last summer, I saw a lone hen running around, staying close to Dino (see blog entry Dino the dirty dog).  They went everywhere together.

Upon enquiry, it turned out that she hated being cooped up like the rest of her fowl folk, and kept breaking out.  After the nth time of catching her and returning her to the corral, Jeanette decided to let her be.  The hen never gave her any more trouble.

Colette’s father Serge left some bales of hay in the barn/garage area, and the hen took to laying an egg on top of one of the bales.  After Serge removed the bales, she carried on laying her eggs there, straight onto the concrete floor, in the exact same spot where she'd been laying them thus far.

(Event happened August/September 2010)

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Speed reading on a speedy train (France)

Colette’s always trying to make sure I’m well looked after.  On one of my trips to the farm, she suggested I go via Toulouse (instead of Agen), stay the night with her mother’s godma so that I could see a bit of the city, then she’d fly in the following evening after work, and we could go to the farm together the next day.

I was going by train, and precise meeting arrangements were made and very clear instructions given:  there were two different exits, and I was to walk across to the farther one where Jeanette’s godma and her husband would be waiting for me, dressed in British colours (dark blue and red), holding a British magazine in their hand.

I’d had a quick glance at my ticket when checking the train number and time of departure, so only had a fleeting glimpse of the name of the train station in Toulouse, which I saw started with M.  (For those who don't already know and are curious, it is Matabiau.)

After something like five hours on the TGV, comfortable though the journey had been and much as I love train journeys, I was ready for Toulouse, so when the train pulled into a station with a name that started with M, I grabbed my bag and leapt off, even though a quick check of my watch told me that it was about 20 minutes earlier than the scheduled arrival time.  Something at the back of my mind told me that the TGV might be fast but they’re not supposed to be that fast and arrive that early.  I should’ve listened to that warning bell.

Within five seconds of stepping off the train, I realised my mistake because the train station did not look anything like the description given by Monsieur Bernard, the godma’s husband.  I turned round to jump back on, but it was already pulling out of the station.

OK, first thing to do: ring Monsieur Bernard to let them know I won’t be on that train.  Wrong coins.  I have the old French franc ones, but a very kind bloke at the station (eastern European, I felt he was) gives me some of his own.  I get Monsieur Bernard’s answering machine.  Ah, they’ll have left for the train station.  Oh dear.  Oh well, can’t do anything about it now. 

Left the message, then thought, “Maybe I could try and make my own way there by another means, since the next train isn’t for another hour.”

At the entrance was a young couple, in their 20s.  When I asked them if I could get a taxi to Toulouse, their sharp intake of breath told me it wouldn’t be a wise move.  Then the pieces started to fall more into place:  a TGV distance of 20 minutes would be a very long way.  A taxi would cost the earth.  So I sat in the station bar and sampled some French bottled beer for an hour until the next train.

To this day, any mention of the name Montauban would bring back vivid memories of that careless hasty move.

Minou (France)

The cats and dogs on the French farm are not allowed into the house at all, yet on one of my earlier visits some 15 years ago, I found this rule flouted by a black and white cat—either a young adult or an old kitten, I couldn’t tell, as it was small in size and young in appearance.  I’ve never been good at telling the age of humans anyway, so it’s even harder with animals.  I read the soul, not the shell.

Soon, I could see why this cat was granted special dispensation:  he had very winning ways.  He wasn’t just good-looking (it’s so unfair, isn’t it?!?), he was also very obliging—lying on his side, he’d allow le patron Serge or Colette to twirl him round and round on the spot, without the slightest protest or indignation, happily basking in the attention.  He was always handed bits of food from the dining table as he would beg most charmingly.  Not grovel; just beg.

Colette would coo to him whenever she saw him, “Minou, Minou, Minou!” so I assumed that was his name.  Then one day, I heard Jeanette call him “Mimi”.  Mimi?!?  I thought his name was Minou?  And Mimi for a tom??  Ah well, it’s a foreign language to me, so maybe Mimi is all right as a name for a boy in French.  The French do things differently anyway.

Some ten years later, we were invited round to the house of relatives of theirs, for a pre-Tour de France meal before going out to cheer them on as they whizzed through the village street.  This was a couple in their 60s, if not 70s.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard the wife address the husband as “Minou”.  I guess if Felix works as a name for both male cat and male human in English, why not Minou in French?  When I commented on it, she explained that Minou sort of meant “darling”. 

Ah, the penny then dropped: Mimi is an abbreviation of Minou, reduplicated.  From that minute on, I started calling him Monsieur Minou, which amused them heaps, but it has stuck since then, with everyone knowing him as Monsieur Minou.  Lucky for him I didn’t choose to use the abbreviated version.

I have since looked it up in the dictionary.  Minou means pussycat.

Matter over mind (China/Japan)

My supervisor, Dr. Paul Mulligan Thompson*, who was born in China (of Irish missionary parents) and brought up there until the age of 16, spoke fluent Chinese and taught at a famous college of the University of London classical Chinese, just to name one of the long list of things he was able to do. 

One day, he was in Beijing and asked a local chap, in Mandarin, how to get to Tian’anmen Square.  The chap took a quick look at him and turned his face away.  My supervisor repeated the question, and again the man wouldn’t respond.   

After a third time of this, my supervisor thought, “Maybe the man can’t even understand Mandarin.  There are so many people in Beijing who are from other regions, after all.”  He decided to check with the man, in Mandarin: “Can you understand Mandarin?”  In answer, the man pointed in a particular direction without any hestitation and said, in Mandarin: “Tian’anmen Square is that way!” 

So he did understand in the first place, but his eyes saw a Westerner, so his ears and brain couldn’t process the sounds he was hearing, even though it was his own language, until the last question made him register belatedly the fact that the Westerner had been speaking in Mandarin after all.

I’d heard about a Japanese journalist, back in the late 70s or early 80s, who went out into the streets of Tokyo with a blond wig and blue contact lenses, and raised the bridge of his nose.  When he stopped people in the street and asked them questions in perfect Japanese, nobody understood him.

Then about a BBC journalist who was fluent in Chinese and went to a village to interview some locals.  The old woman she approached in Chinese, asking if she could answer some questions, kept saying, “I don’t speak a foreign language.”  The BBC reporter said, still in Chinese, “But I’m speaking in Chinese.”  Old woman:  “No, no, no, I can’t speak a foreign language.”


These foreigners don’t understand the language anyway: 01 (China)

Suzanna the German had spent a year in China for her Year Abroad, so she was fluent at the end of it.  One day she was out in Xiamen (S.E. China) when two local women noticed her, and started a running commentary on her, in Chinese:  “Oh look at that Westerner!  Look at her legs: they’re like tree trunks.  And look at her bum, and the size of it!  She has such a big nose!” 

At this point, Suzanna couldn’t take any more of it, so she said to the women, in fluent Chinese:  “You shouldn’t be talking about people like that.  Don’t you know it’s very rude?”  One of the women thought about it for a few seconds, and said to her friend:  “It’s not rude.  These Westerners don’t understand Chinese anyway!”

Follow that bus! (France)

Jeanette and I had got up nice and early for me to catch the very first bus from Auch to Agen, where I was to board my TGV train to Paris, and from there my Eurostar train for London.  Again, another stack of domino-effect arrangements (see blog entry Cuzco chico). 

It was still dark when we got there, at about 530am.  Sat there in silence—Jeanette can’t speak English, and I can’t speak French—waiting in the car park in front of Auch train station from which the coaches normally left.  Being half awake, we didn’t quite consciously register that the car park was unusually devoid of any coach traffic, parked or otherwise.  There was only one other car a few spaces away from us, with three people in it, obviously also waiting for a coach.

The next thing was, we saw my coach beetling off down the road.  Now where did it appear from??!! 

It turned out that they’d moved the coach bays, which were now over to the other side.  Neither we nor the occupants of the other car knew that, so we'd been waiting all the while at the wrong place. 

The driver of the other car leapt out of his car at the same time as Jeanette and I, and dashed over to the one coach sitting there in the new coach bay area.  He challenged the poor driver of that coach, in French: “Why did no-one tell us that you’ve now moved over to this side!  We’ve been waiting over there for ages!  And we have to catch a train at Agen for Paris!!  Now what are we going to do!?” 

The coach driver just shrugged his shoulders.  After all, what was he to do about it?  He did try to help though, by saying, “Maybe you could catch up with it as it’s doing its round of village stops.”  The car driver said, “Right, that’s what we’ll do.”  Jeanette, hovering just behind him, fully awake now, eagle-eyed and ears all flapping, looking like a vulture eagerly waiting for even the smallest crumbs, said, “Et la Chinoise??”  I’d never heard myself referred to as such before. 

The man said, “She can come too.”  I hopped in with my bag, and we started chasing the bus, which by now had a good 10-minute head start on us. 

The route was a straight one to Agen on the main road, but the village stops involved turning off the main road, doing a loop, picking up passengers at the village stops, then re-joining the main road.  For a few village stops, we would just miss the bus by a few minutesarriving to find seers-off turning away to go back homethen quickly rush back to the main road. 

One more village stop and then the coach would be on the long and straight run into Agen.  It was starting to get hairy.

Then, just before we got to the final village stop, we saw ahead the bus emerging onto the main road, so we sped forwards.  Once abreast of the coach, we ran alongside it, wound down the windows, stuck all available arms out of the windows, waved madly and shouted out at the driver to let us get on.  He pulled over, and we climbed aboard.  Phew.

Listening the Swedish way (Sweden)

One of the first things I noticed when we went to Sweden—travelling slowly by coach all the way from Gothenburg to Stockholm, taking about 3 days, staying overnight along the way—was the way Swedish listeners would suck in their breath when you’re telling them something, as if constantly surprised.  (Actually, I've noticed German people doing that too.)

When we got to Stockholm, I mentioned this to our Swedish friend Lars.  He asked, “Is this done mostly by women?”  Yes, it is, come to think of it.  Lars said, “Well, you see, women love to talk, so when someone else is talking, they’re constantly trying to butt in with their own contribution.  The sucking in of breath is them getting ready to say something, but the other person—most likely also a woman— won’t let them nip in, so all you hear is the sucking in of breath.”

Name change for a little East African boy (East Africa--now Uganda)

Alf —now a famous professor in his field at UCL—taught English in what was then East Africa.  Suddenly being faced with some 40 African children in one class, he came up with a clever way of learning how to place which name with which face. 

You see, it wasn’t just that they all looked alike to him (initially anyway).  There was also the problem of their names.  Apparently, at that time anyway (maybe still to this day), African babies would be named after the first thing the mother saw the moment the baby was born, so a baby could be named “Cowpat Under The Tree” or something equally unappetising.

Alf’s clever solution was to draw up a chart of where which child sat, and told them not to change seats until he got the hang of their identities. 

One day, Alf called out this particular boy’s name.  No answer.  Alf tried again.  No answer.  Alf looked at the chart, and yes, he’d called out the right name for that child in the corner, and he did tell them not to change seats.  So he tried again; still no answer. 

Alf said to the child, “Is your name not Cowpat Under The Tree?”  The child said, “It was yesterday, but not today.”  Alf: “What do you mean ‘Not today’?”  The boy said, “I don’t like my name, so I’ve changed it.”  OK, Alf thought, fair enough.  What’s your new name?  The boy had gone and chosen the name of a very famous white man, and adopted it in full:  Adolf Hitler.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Dino the dirty dog (in more ways than one) (France)

“Dino is an ugly dog.”  Those were Colette’s first words to me about him, poor boy!  He doesn’t look anything like the other dogs on the farm, which are all hunting dogs, numbering at least half a dozen at any one time. 

The hunting dogs are brown, short-legged, short-haired, extremely sociable and get on with everyone else, both four-legged and two-, looking you straight in the eye each time.  There is one that bares its teeth as it waddles up to you, wagging its backside, which Colette said was meant to be a smile—the baring of teeth, that is, not the wagging of backside. 

Dino, on the other hand, stands out for miles: scruffy—his matted, tangled fur always has clumps of something embedded and he is always scratching.  He is of an indeterminable shade of black and dark grey, has shifty eyes and wears a perpetual sheepish and apologetic look as if he’s just done something bad (which you have yet to discover).  He’ll get up and shuffle away as soon as you approach, whether you’re going up to him or just passing by, as if he’s afraid of being targeted.  The just in case approach.  He must’ve been beaten a lot, probably for no reason, which might explain the perpetual sheepish look—he’s come to think he is always in the wrong.  (Reminds me of Billysee blog entry Bung Deetle Bung Deetle.)

He’d come to the farm as an orphan.  His owner had died in a house fire, which had destroyed everything else but Dino. 

Right from the start, Dino failed to fit in, by rubbing the other dogs up the wrong way—more specifically, up the wrong end by sniffing their underparts.  They took umbrage at this newcomer taking such an over-familiar approach, and warned him off with a few growls at the back of the throat and some rising hackles.  Which should’ve been clear to Dino, except that he doesn’t seem to read body language messages too well, and went ahead with his never say die way of doing things.  The growls would grow in volume and duration, then turn into bites, but still he’d go back for more.  If one dog didn’t like his bum sniffed at, Dino would move on to the next, undeterred.  Colette called it sexual harassment.

In the end, Dino was left with the loner hen (see my other entry The loner hen) for company, and they’d go for walks together, exploring various parts of the farm, until the loner hen got eaten one day—by one of the hunting dogs.  So Dino went back to bum-sniffing, which eventually erupted in a massive retaliation one day, as the other dogs sank their teeth into him and rolled him about in the mud.  So that’s where he gets his matted fur from!

Jeanette is a real sweetie with people, very good natured and easy-going, but you hear her constantly barking at Dino, many times a day.  Without looking out of the window, I'll know from Jeanette's ticking off that he’s either been doing some sniffing, or stealing some dog’s food. 

He's not perpetually hungry, though.  One day I found him sitting down with a bun on the ground right in front of him.  As soon as he saw me coming out of the house, he picked it up between his teeth and walked away from me.  Fair enough, he thought I might want to take it from him.  This happened every time I went anywhere near him.  However, hours later, that bun was still uneaten.  So he was just guarding it for the sake of stopping anyone from taking it from him.  Strange dog.

On my way back to London, as the plane was landing, I heard a hoarse raspy sound, a throaty sort of woof woof that was Dino's bark.  He had stowed away and was following me back!  It turned out to be the flippers of the plane rasping.

Caught a bus from where the airport bus dropped me, and as it approached South Kensington Tube station, lo and behold, right ahead was a huge sign that I’d never noticed before, which said DINO’s [Italian restaurant].  No escape from the ball of scruff even back in London.

(France September 2010)

Update (October 2011):  Coming back on Monday 03 October from my visit to the farm this summer, I took the same bus via South Kensington as last year, and found that Dino's has now become Muriel's Kitchen.  Wonder if it's because they'd read this blog entry and didn't want to be associated with a ball of scruff...?

The anarchists’ bookshop (London)

A friend Guy was in an anarchists’ bookshop one day when the phone went.  There were two members of staff, each sitting at his desk, and one other customer, browsing.  The phone rang and rang and rang.  Neither of the staff members did anything about it.  Guy raised his eyebrows in query at the other customer, who said, “It’s an anarchists’ bookshop.  Nobody wants to tell other people what to do.”

(London mid-80s)

Monday, 25 July 2011

O-chyo-ko-chyo-i (London)

I don’t know where I got it from, because it doesn’t happen with my siblings at all.  I'll walk through a doorway and brush my shoulder against the doorframe;  pick up a glass to drink from and miss my mouth, pouring the contents down my shirt;  open wall cabinets, at eye level, straight into my own face;  shut doors with my other hand on the door frame, and open doors into my own knee.  And all this while sober!  

My Japanese friend Satoshi has even given me a nickname in Japanese—o-chyo-ko-chyo-i, which means “The Clumsy One”.

Why learn Chinese? (London)

Back in the 80s, I asked Suzanne, a French student in her 70s doing a part-time BA degree in Chinese, why she'd chosen Chinese and not some other European language.  Her answer:  "Some other European language??!  I'll master it in five years, and then what do I do with my time?!?  I've chosen Chinese because it is a life-long pursuit."  Maybe the term caveat emptor was coined with learning Chinese in mind?

Friday, 22 July 2011

A day in at the Caracas airport (Caracas, Venezuela)

After three weeks in Peru where the natives were very friendly and sweet-natured (they might try to queue-jump, usually in a surreptitious way, but they’d defer good-naturedly if challenged), it was a shock to the system to find our by-now instinctively-ready smiles totally ignored, or treated with great suspicion, as if we were after something by smiling at them. 

On our cable car ride down from the peak, a group of teenage brats started mocking us for some reason, exaggerating their facial gestures and speaking mannerisms to take the mickey.  We couldn’t think why, because we were not dressed differently or anything.   As they seemed to be mocking Nick who is blond and blue-eyed, more than they were mocking me, I didn’t think it was a racist gesture towards me.  Nick got very wound-up as we had to put up with it all the way down, being stuck in the confined space of a cable car pod, and just about managed to stop himself from lunging at the bratty group to rip them to pieces. 

The food, we decided, was the only improvement on Peru and couldn’t wait to get out of Caracas.  We’d arrived on Friday, and visited a work contact of Nick’s on Sunday who recommended that we go to the airport first thing in the morning to go on standby for tickets to the Angel Falls, as Caracas didn’t have much more to offer than our weekend.

Got up at 3am, and went out into the silent and dark streets at 330am.  Managed to hail a cab, and asked the driver if he knew how to get to the bus terminus for the airport bus.  He said yes, and we climbed in.  A few blocks later, he said he didn’t know the way after all.  I could feel Nick’s blood pressure rising.  Luckily, I remembered the way, in reverse, when we came to the hotel from the airport bus terminus, so I directed him.

When we arrived at the bus terminus, we made two mistakes: (a) we got out of the taxi first, then paidwhich is the way to do it in London, as the meter might have jumped by the time you’ve got out of the taxi; (b) Nick handed over a big note, the driver said he didn’t have any change, and drove off with it before we could try and find smaller notes.  Nick would’ve thrown a rock at the receding taxi if there was one at hand.

At the airport, there were quite a few people already queuing for the standby tickets.  There were two windows, and we queued in front of one, about tenth in place.  We stood a chance of getting two seats then, we thought.  Just as we got to the window, the clerk shut it in our face and told us to go and join the other one, which made us something like No.30 in that queue.  As the seconds, then minutes, ticked by towards the departure of the flight to the Angel Falls, I could almost hear Nick’s patience-bomb ticking, ready to explode. 

After what seemed like an interminable wait, we got our tickets, with something like 5 minutes to the departure.  We ran over to the customs and immigration area, where there was a queue for the passports and bags!  It was a manual conveyor-belt type of arrangement:  you move forward, pushing your bag(s) along on the waist-high belt for the official to open and inspect, and you hand him your passport.  The ticking in Nick got louder and he started to check his watch every few seconds. 

When it got to our turn, Nick made a huge error of judgement—so close to reaching our goal, and he had to go and spoil it.  In response to the official’s request for his passport, Nick tried to bargain with him, telling him, in Spanish, that our plane was leaving in a couple of minutes.  The official—big bushy moustache and eyebrows, looking every inch the officious authority who was not to be meddled with—insisted, “Pasaporte!  Pasaporte!”  Nick tried again, this time pointing at his own watch while remonstrating in Spanish.  Again, “Pasaporte!  Pasaporte!” 

The bomb exploded:  Nick took his passport out of his breast pocket (why couldn’t he have done that in the first place?  It’d have only taken a few seconds, whilst the remonstrating was eating up precious time that we could ill afford!), said in English, through clenched teeth, “Right, you want my passport?  You can have it!” and flung his passport down so hard on the stationary conveyor belt that it bounced up in the air.  The man withheld his passport, took his bag off the conveyor belt, and turned to the person behind Nick. 

Unfortunately, Iwho was immediately in front of Nick and it was obvious we were togetherhad just handed over my passport, so the official dealing with me also withheld my passport and removed my bag from the conveyor belt.  I said, in English, “But I haven’t done anything!”  (Not that I’d have left for the Angel Falls without Nick, however he might have landed us in trouble, but I wanted to say it just for the principle of it.)  It fell on deaf ears.

We were waved to one side, and they slowly and deliberately dealt with every single passenger after us, leaving us to watch helplessly.  Our plane departure time came and went, our plane took off (we could see it through the glass frontage), and they waited until the whole place was completely cleared of passengers.  And still they left us waiting on one side, for a while longer, by simply vanishing.  They certainly knew how to make people who dared defy their authority rue their actions.  What now??

After what seemed like ages, we were summoned into an office round the corner, just off the huge departure lounge.  The bushy moustachioed and bushy eye-browed official sat behind his desk, and we sat in two chairs against the wall facing him, like naughty little schoolchildren seeing the school principal for misbehaviour. 

He started his lecture in Spanish, “Do you know who I am?  You don’t go around challenging my authority.  You do what I tell you to do.  How dare you dictate how I should go about my business?!”  When he’d run out of steam, we started, in English, “Señor, we’re terribly sorry.  We shouldn’t have done that.  Please accept our apologies.  Please forgive us.”  He said, repeatedly in Spanish to each of our grovelling efforts, “I don’t understand English.”  What to do next?  We waited.

After some time, another man came in, a younger one who turned out to be the interpreter.  Presumably to give the impression that they were being fair by making sure we understood what it was all about.  The official began his spiel, which was exactly the same as before and which we’d understood completely anyway.  The interpreter translated the whole lot into English.  We listened patiently.  Then we said to the interpreter, “Can you tell him that we’re very sorry, that we regret what we’d done, could he please forgive us.”  The interpreter said, “I’m here to interpret his words, not yours,” and left the office.  What now?

The official ignored us, and started to make some phone calls.  From his tone of voice, his facial expressions and the way he was laughing, we could tell he was flirting with a female down the line.  A second call—and a different woman no doubt—with the same performance.  And a third, and a fourth.  The man’s quite a Lothario, I thought.  No wonder he was so incensed by Nick’s behaviour, which would incense anybody anyway, but with an ego like that!

Nick started to apologise to me for having got me into trouble.  I said, “Actually, it might be quite interesting to see what the inside of a Venezuelan jail is like.”  A sudden flash of The Midnight Express[1]—a harrowing film I saw in 1979 which left me literally shaking as I walked out of the cinema, the screams still reverberating in my head—then reminded me that this was perhaps the wrong country, and certainly the wrong time, to be flippant about such things.  That bushy eye-browed and moustachioed man looked quite capable of satisfying my curiosity without any encouragement. 

I continued, “But what’s more important than MY being arrested for something YOU have done is your attitude.  You’ve been saying how much you hate your banking job, calling your pin-striped suit a clown suit, and so on.  Yet, over the last three weeks travelling around Peru, when we were supposed to be on holiday and having a great time, you complained about absolutely everything: the buses being late—when all the guide books had warned us about South American timekeeping; this, that and the other.  You’ve also made my holiday miserable having to listen to you moan and whinge.”  I didn’t add that I’d thought on many occasions during those three weeks, “As soon as we get back, I’ll be quite relieved to get a divorce from this pain of a moaning Minnie.” 

I went on, “I feel sorry for you.  You hate your job, yet you also make yourself miserable when on holiday, for goodness’ sake.  At this rate, you won’t have any hair left!”  He managed a little smile at this, but I’d by then built myself up into a weeping state.  It was probably because of this that Señor Mostacho decided to let us go, but I suspect it was more Señor Lothario who wanted us out of his way because we were cramping his style, listening in on his serial flirting.

When I say “let us go”, I don’t mean with our passports though, only into the departure lounge with our bags which were cluttering up his office anyway.  We were sent out of his office rather than actually allowed to leave the airport altogether. 

It was only 9am.  And there we sat, hour after hour, watching plane after plane take off, not knowing what was going to happen next.  Eventually, at 330pm, a man came out of Mostacho Lothario’s office with our passports, and we were allowed to get on the very last plane out in the direction of the Angel Falls.  At least we were allowed that little mercy, for which we must be grateful to the man, I guess.  There was still a tiny iota of humanity in his bruised egoistic heart.  Couldn’t have been so hard-hearted if he was capable of buttering up the ladies, could he?

It was not the Angel Falls, however, that we could get a flight to, because they'd all gone for the day;  Señor Bruised Ego made sure of that.  It was a pokey little nondescript town (if that), with absolutely nothing to do or see—more like a halfway watering hole for passing traffic, totally functional, with pre-fab houses as a shelter against the elements, no more.  Still, we were grateful we could actually go there, for it meant covering part of the journey towards the Falls.  We had to get another plane ticket to the Angel Falls, of course, plus a hotel room for the night.  What an inconvenient and costly way (time- and money-wise) to let off steam, though.  And picking the wrong target, too.

(Incident happened July 1986)


Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The bear (Central Europe)

This was set by me as a Reading Comprehension test one year:

A middle European country was having trouble attracting enough tourists as it had no beaches or mountains.  They then came up with the idea of hunting holidays as they had plenty of forests.  The only problem was they didn’t have that many wild animals for these hunting trips.  Someone suggested hiring a circus bear which would be tame and would obey their commands, and filling the guns with blanks so that the bear wouldn’t get killed and could be recycled, leaving the tourists to think it was just their own poor shooting skills.

A circus bear was duly hired and released in the woods, near where the tourists were for them to spot and shoot.  There was a road running through the woods.  As the tourists were about to take aim, a little old lady came trundling down this road just as the bear ambled on to the road.  At the sight of the bear, the little old lady shrieked, abandoned her bike and ran away, whereupon the bear leapt on to the bicycle and rode off.

The Gents (Singapore)

I was temping in an office block in Singapore, assigned to two American male bosses who’d been sharing an office and support staff with another company on another floor until they decided to go their own way. 

On the first day, I went to the Ladies and found the door locked, so I asked one of my bosses, Larry, who gave me the only key he had.  It was a small room, with a hand basin and urinal area, and a lock-up cubicle beyond that.  I used it for days without running into anyone, until one day, I was emerging as a local Chinese bloke was entering.  He halted abruptly, took a look at me, stepped back to take a look at and above the door (which gave no indication of what it was, not even the fact that it was a toilet) to see if it might’ve been he who’d wandered into the wrong room, and said, “This is the gents!”  I didn’t know what to say, so I just replied, “Well, just shut the door after you.”

Within a few minutes, the manager of the building—a very genial man—turned up at my desk, hesitated for a bit as if not knowing how to broach the subject, then said with an amused smile, “I hear you’ve been using the men’s toilet.” It turned out that it was the toilet for male executives, of which I was neither.  My impression from the reaction of the chap I’d encountered earlier was that he was actually more indignant about me—a mere secretary—using the executives’ toilet than about me—a woman—using the men’s toilet.  The manager gave me another key, this time to the Ladies, which had eight cubicles.

The very next day, in the post arrived a card from Houston, Texas, where Pete had been visiting (one of the oil company’s branches).  The cover of the card had a hole through which one could see a woman’s side profile, smiling, above which were the words, “I like you…”.  Inside were the words “…because you are different!”  The picture was of the woman, with her back to the reader, standing at a urinal, flanked by two men.  Talk about uncanny!  Spooky or what??

(Singapore 1977)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Holiday Inn (London)

Laura, who was a year above me at university, said just before the Easter break one year that if I got fed-up with being cooped up in my bedsit in London and would like to go out into the sticks, I was welcome to stay with her at her parents’ out near Amersham. 

So one day, I rang her, from the pay-phone, to accept the invitation.  It was during the day, which was peak time, so we’d only spoken for a short while before the pips started going.  I pushed in a second coin, and Laura said she’d call me back.  (We had this ongoing thing between us, always fighting to pay for the other party.)  I said no, I was going to stay with her, so the least I could do was to pay for the call. 

The pips went again, and I pushed a third coin in.  Laura protested, threatening to put the phone down the next time the pips went, which she did just as I pushed a fourth coin in at the next set of pips.  So I waited. 

Within a few seconds, the phone rang.  A man’s voice said, “Oh, Holiday Inn?  I’d like to book a …”  I cut him off, “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong number.  This isn’t the Holiday Inn.”  He said, “Terribly sorry,” and rang off. 

Now, this man gave me an idea: I’d teach Laura a lesson for hanging up on me.  When the phone rang again a few seconds later, I said in my best professional voice, “Holiday Inn, good morning.”  The same man’s voice said, “Oh good, I’ve got the right number this time.  I’d like to book a ...”  I cut in, “I’m so sorry, I know I’ve just identified myself as the Holiday Inn, but I’m actually not the Holiday Inn.”  A brief silence, then from the man, “I don’t understand.  I’m confused now.”  I had to explain that I was trying to play a trick on my friend.

Then it occurred to me that we’d been getting loads of calls for the Holiday Inn down the road in Swiss Cottage, so I asked him what number he’d dialled.  It was our number, and he’d got it from Directory Enquiries.  So I told him to cross that number out as it was definitely ours and not the Holiday Inn’s, and that he should go back to Directory Enquiries and see if he could get another number. 

When the phone rang a third time, I didn’t dare say anything other than a meek “Hello”.  It was Laura who, when related the story, told me, “Serves you right!”

(Event happened April 1979)

Follow that train! (Pontresina, Switzerland)

Being Swiss, the Gentle Giant is super-efficient, right down to having a copy of the timetable for trains and buses for the whole country.  Whenever it was my turn to go over, I’d want a trek in the mountains, be it just a day trip or a longer one.  Out would come the timetable, as the master of precision planned the trip down to the nearest minute; nay, second, as we could still run for the train or bus then.

On one of these trips, to the Italian part of Switzerland, his parents were going cross-country skiing in Pontresina, which was sort of on our way, so we made a detour and dropped in to have lunch with them.  After lunch, we boarded the last carriage of the St Moritz-bound train, nice and early — by some 25 minutes.

We sat chatting and chatting, and the next thing was, we saw the rest of the train pulling out of the station, leaving us behind.  Of all the carriages to pick, we had to choose the one that had been uncoupled!

We leapt out of the train, hailed the first taxi that came along, and ordered the driver, “Follow that train!”

The class monitor (Singapore)

At Raffles Institution during my time as a student there, there was a rule of no eating in the classroom. 

We had a class monitor whom we’d nicknamed Freak (to his face) and Goofy (after the Disney character, which perhaps he didn’t know about — that is, that he’d been given this second nickname, not that Goofy existed), so you can imagine the sort of person he was — in looks and nature.

One day, during the mid-morning break, as only a few people remained behind in the classroom while others went to the tuck shop, Jong Long started to eat a packet of titbits.  Freak then came into the classroom, saw Jong Long eating, and said in a loud voice, “Jong Long!”  We froze.  Jong Long was going to get booked.  Freak continued, “Don’t eat alone!  Hand some over!” 

Freak got re-elected class monitor the following year—unanimously.

(Singapore 1971)

The gomi (Tokyo, Japan)

Back in 1980, a German friend living in Japan at the time would go out walking at night, as was his wont anywhere.  He came across a fridge at the gomi[1] which he felt was in good working order, so he went back the next day with his bicycle, in the dead of night as there’d be no traffic around, loaded the fridge onto the outer pedal, tilted the bike towards his body, and wheeled it home that way.  A night patrol policeman happened to come along, and stopped him for questioning, as he simply couldn’t believe that a gaijin[2], supposed to be wealthy or wealthier than the locals, would want to take something a local had thrown out.

Fast forward to 1993 when I went to visit an Englishman teaching English out there.  He had three bicycles.  I asked him what he wanted three bicycles for, as he couldn’t ride all three at the same time.  He said as he was a peripatetic teacher cycling from school to school, it was useful to have a spare bike or two should one of them develop a puncture, as he could just abandon it at home and ride the spare one, leaving the repairs to be done at the weekend.  They were free of charge, anyway, as he’d got them from the gomi.

He also had a three-piece leather suite and a vacuum cleaner, all from the gomi.  Towards the end of my six-week stay, he said, “The vacuum cleaner is not sucking well.  It’s time for another visit to the gomi.”

[1] Japanese for rubbish — the dump in this case.
[2] Foreigner but more Western foreigner than any other racial group.

Skiving off skiing (Courmayeur, Italy/London)

The oil company cohort I’d worked with as a temp in the summer found a skiing holiday deal that allowed the eleventh person to go free (of charge), and as it was in March as well, nearing the end of the skiing season, it was a deal I just couldn’t turn down.  Since I’d been a model student, going to every single lesson so far, I thought it might be all right for me to skip one week’s classes, as I’d be able to catch up, being the swot that I was.  (I hope my students are not reading this…)

After a week of being in the sun with sunglasses on, and being one to tan quickly, I acquired the nickname of Panda, so I couldn’t even hide my tan by covering up with clothes.  I didn’t own a balaclava at the time.

First day back at university, last week of term, I went really early to the classroom, choosing a seat right at the back in a corner.  The classical Chinese teacher (of the swing doors reputation; see blog entry The swing doors) called out each student in turn, getting them to read, then to translate. 

Finally, everyone had had a turn, and there was one sentence left.  He looked around, and spotted me: “Ah, you’re back!”  They’d apparently been feeling very sorry for me throughout the week, thinking I must’ve been really ill to be missing a whole week’s classes.  Sheep.  Then he said, “Oh.  I see where you’ve been.”  Gulp.  Double sheep. 

I did my sentence, and got one bit wrong, a hilarious mistake which had the teacher collapsing in a fit of giggles, covering his mouth with one hand, his face reddening from the effort of trying to control his giggles.  Teachers are not meant to be laughing at students, you see.

The bell went, and everyone got up to leave.  He called out to me, “Can you stay behind, please.  I need to talk to you.”  Oh dear.  I knew what it was going to be about.  I was going to be lectured on skiving off before the end of term, even though my attendance had always been punctual and my work exemplary—until just now, when I made that silly mistake, so skipping classes obviously affected my studies.

He waited until everyone had left, and there were only the two of us.  Obviously to save me face during the ticking off.

Mr. W:  “Where did you go skiing last week?”
Me:       “Courmayeur.” 
Mr. W:  “I’m going that way next week, and was wondering what the snow conditions were like last week.”

(Courmayeur/London March/April 1979)

The swing doors (London)

I had a recurring problem with my classical Chinese teacher within my first few weeks (already!) at university, until we eventually—and reluctantly—arrived at a compromise for the sake of bystanders. 

Whenever we happened to arrive at the same time at a set of swing doors en route to the classroom for our lessons, I’d push open my half to let him through first, because he was my teacher, older and male (in that order, note!). 

As a European gentleman of a certain generational upbringing (e.g., he’d always walk on the outside of the pavement, which made it awkward whenever we turned corners as he’d keep switching, sometimes almost colliding with me in his haste to be on the correct side), he’d hold his half of the swing doors open for me to go through before him, on the Ladies First principle.  

As we deferred and haggled, a long queue would build up behind us.  In the end, we had to come to a compromise: go through the swing doors together.

(London 1978)

Spoonerism: kepala and kelapa (Singapore)

Non-native speakers, and students, of Malay often get kepala (head) mixed up with kelapa (coconut).

We had an elderly kebun (Malay for gardener) whom we kept on more to help him earn some money than anything.  Any windfalls from our two coconut trees would be given to him, for his wife to make a curry with, which would always be received with great joy.

One morning, as he came to work, my uncle said excitedly to him, “Kebun, kebun, malam tadi kepala jatuh!  [Gardener, gardener, last night head fell!]”  The poor man went quite ashen.

In April, my siblings and I took our 85-year-old mother out for a meal, and her Indonesian maid was invited along (we always tried to, and still do, include our maids in these outings, as they generally can’t afford to on their own).  The dessert was some yam mash with what was billed as coconut cream, but the white liquid didn’t quite taste of coconut milk.  My sister said to the maid, “Tidak ada kepala [not have head].”  (She meant to say, “Tidak ada kelapa [not have coconut].”)  The maid nearly choked on her dessert.

The house was still there (Hong Kong)

I was looking after my 84-year-old ex-teacher one year as she was eating tinned food for the convenience.  One of the things I’ve found from caring for old people is that they enjoy talking about their earlier days, so I encourage them to.  She was born and brought up in Hong Kong, with a father who worked as a comprador.  They had a big house, with an even bigger garden behind (big enough for horse-riding), beyond which was a hill.

During one of our reminiscences, I asked her if she’d been back to see that house since she came over to Britain in 1942, and she said, “Yes, I did go back once to look at the house.  It was in 1975.  The house was still there, but the hill was gone.”

The Chinese laundry in New York (USA)

Douglas took his friend John to his usual Chinese laundry to drop off a load of washing.  The Chinese man said to Douglas, “Cor.”  Douglas responded, without any hesitation, “Ver cor.”

As they left the shop, John asked Douglas, “What was that all about?”  Douglas said, “The man was commenting on the weather and said, ‘Cold.’  I agreed, so I said in return, ‘Very cold.’”

John said, “But it didn’t sound anything like that to me.  He said cor.  How do you know he meant cold?”  Douglas said, “Well, one day I went in with a blazer for dry-cleaning.  The man pointed at the buttons and said, ‘Gor?’  And I said to him, ‘No, not gold.  Brass.’“

Reaving in a hully (London/Japan)

Denise had been teaching English to a Japanese man, and spent many lessons getting him to say “yellow lorry” right.  

One day, she received a letter from him, saying he had to go back to Japan at short notice and apologising for not having been able to say goodbye in person because, he wrote, “Today, my prane fried.”

The diary entry (London)

My supervisor on the Chinese computer research projects[1] came into my office one day with an embarrassed look on his face.  “How do I tell people I have a new PhD student called Randy* and keep a straight face?”

As his calls were re-routed to me if he wasn’t in his office, I’d take messages and agree to tentative appointments on his behalf, then check them against his diary.  One day, we were doing this when he opened his diary, and there was an entry for Monday that said, in his handwriting, “Randy* at 10am.”

(London 1988)

*Those who don't understand the meaning of the British usage of the word "randy", please look up a dictionary, as I'm a bit embarrassed to gloss it.

[1] See my other entry Process aborted.

Other people's things (London)

Laura has offered to help me clear out, saying, “It’s much easier to throw out someone else’s stuff than one’s own.”  Which made me laugh—long and loud.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Helsinki fishmonger (Finland)

I wandered around the open-air market, eating out of the bags of strawberries, cherries and peas in the pod I'd bought at the stalls, absorbing all the smells and sounds that wafted around: sizzling barbecued elk steaks, grilled corn on the cob (with a choice of half a dozen sauces and dips), fresh vegetables and fruit, the stall-keepers calling out their produce in Finnish, the different languages spoken by the tourists.  The fruit sellers sold their produce in tankards that would hold about two pints, I think, rather than weigh them.

As I walked past the fish stall, the fishmonger was in the process of explaining to a couple the different types of fish on his stall and how to cook them.  As it was in English, I stopped to listen as I was interested to find out how differently the Finns cooked their fish.  At the end of his explanation, the couple began to discuss their options with each other.  When the fishmonger heard them speaking in German, he switched to German! 

In the East, people like fishmongers would generally be considered to be of a lower educational level, probably even none at all.  This fishmonger speaks four languages:  Finnish, Swedish, English, and German.  I thought, “I’d like to be re-born a Finn in my next life!”  From the country, I mean, not as an item for sale on this polyglot’s stall.

(August 1996)

Laundry in Dunhuang (China)

On the 1988 film shoot in China, I was called from my room by the star we were filming to sort out a laundry problem.  He’d sent in a pair of boxer shorts, but was given a different pair back.  He tried to tell the girl on duty at the reception desk on our floor that they weren’t his, but perhaps because she couldn’t speak English, the message wasn’t getting across even though the size was patently bigger.

Me:     He says the pair of trousers you’ve given back to him are not his.
Girl:    Of course they’re his.
Me:     No, he says they’re not.
Girl:    Of course they are.
Me:     No, they’re not.
Girl:    Yes, they are.
Me:     Look, if they are his, why should he say they’re not?  It doesn’t make sense, does it?
Girl:    Who knows?  You ask the foreigner why he doesn’t want his own things anymore! [不知道啊!你问外国人啊,自己的东西为什么不要了呢!]

Distressed jeans (China)

Janet went to China with a pair of holey distressed jeans, which were all the fashion then.  One day, she sent them off in the hotel’s laundry service bag.  When they came back, she found the tears and holes all neatly patched up.

Red Eyes in Red China (China)

On my 1988 film shoot in China, we arrived at Dengfeng (where the world-famous Shaolin temples are, in Songshan nearby) to find our hotel rooms had not been made up for our arrival.  When we first checked in, the room I was given still had a woman’s clothes, underwear and handbag in it.  I called the attendant over to point this out, upon which she walked off to get me another room, simply leaving the door wide open, handbag in the room and all!

A pungent pong of damp and moulding carpet smell hit me in the face as I entered the room.  In the bathroom, the sink pipe was dripping water onto the floor, and the same dank smell and stinky humidity (from lack of ventilation) permeated the room.  There were wet, dripping, used towels on the rails, in the sink, on the floor.  The rest of the crew had exactly the same thing in their rooms.  Change of towels later, the new lot was still damp and dank, and looked like mould was festering. 

Chris the cameraman and I contracted pretty nasty “red-eyes” (conjunctivitis) the next day—he in both eyes, me in one.  We reckoned we’d been careless in having touched or wiped our hands on the towels—we certainly didn’t USE the towels.  Off we went to the nearest hospital.  When it came to filling in the forms, the staff decided it was too much of an administrative problem to have Chris, the Westerner with a Western name, go on a form by himself, and as I have a Chinese name—which they can handle—they simply used one form under my name.  So, officially, I went on their records as having been treated for three eyes.

The following day, the film director also went down with one red eye.  Another trip to the same hospital.  Oh no, they thought, not ANOTHER Westerner with an impossible-to-write name!  Chris and I got seen to as well, since we were there, so they put all three of us on the same form, again under my name.  Officially, then, I was now being treated for four eyes.