Sunday, 21 August 2011

Customer service Peruvian style (Peru)

We spent two nights in Nazca, which was quite sufficient for the little place, having done the Cessna flight over the Nazca lines and the little local museums.  Nick had gone down with a bad tummy—he thought it might’ve been the Chinese roast duck noodles he'd had back in the previous town, Ica, at a chifa (see blog entry Chifa)—so I was appointed to go and get the tickets for the overnight bus to Arequipa.  As I didn’t speak any Spanish, he gave me the list of questions—in Spanish, which I wrote down, to put to the man at the bus terminus.

The bus terminus was housed in the middle of a terraced row on the main street, looking like, and about the size of, a small town shop or restaurant with the whole of the frontage opened up.  As you went in, there was a long counter on the left, running away from you from the front to the back, behind which was the man dealing with ticket sales, among other things.  On the right, against the wall, was a long wooden bench running the length of the room for people to sit on, facing the counter.

As I went in, the man was dealing with someone, then it was my turn.  I started off by asking him if he spoke English, to which he replied, “Muy muy poco.”  So I had to resort to my list in Spanish.

I asked him the first question on my list:  What time was the bus to Arequipa?  He answered it, repeating it when requested to and waiting patiently while I painstakingly converted it—I find numbers in most languages the hardest to grasp for speedy daily use, and because they’re the most basic and frequently used in any language, they’re always very speedy.  

Then someone came in to get a ticket, and as I wasn’t in a hurry, I deferred to that person.  After that person left, back to my list of questions:  What time was it arriving at Arequipa?  He gave me the answer.  Another slow conversion, with the man showing no sign of impatience at all.

A long distance passenger coach arrived, and the man had to hand over the sack of post for it, with all the paperwork it entailed.  I waited to one side.

To my list of questions again:  How much were the tickets each?  He was about to answer the question when another long distance passenger coach arrived, this time with a sackload of post for him to receive and process the paperwork for it.  

As he was doing this, I happened to look up at the wall behind him, on which was written all the information I wanted (which I hadn't noticed before, for some reason—being too short maybe??): which bus went where when and how much the tickets cost.  The man had fielded each of my questions good-naturedly, with courtesy and patience, in spite of all the chores that rightly required his personal attention, coming back to me for the next question and the next, when he could've drawn my attention to the board behind him, which would've saved himself a lot of work.  

Such was my general experience in my three weeks on that trip and a subsequent three-week trip 16 months later.  In spite of their obvious poverty, the Peruvians are very good-natured, when one might expect them to be grumpy and stressed out by the sheer grind of eking out a living, so poverty is no reason, not even excuse, for rude and horrible behaviour.  They make the visitor, even the ignorant ones like me, feel very welcomed.   

I’d never seen them being short, brusque, abrupt and rude with their own kind either, unlike another, much less poverty-stricken, countrythat I shall leave unnamed (for now)where there's constant shouting and yelling, among other things.  They might want to look to Peru for some lessons to be gleaned.

(Event happened 1986)

Confusing communication—Chinese (China)

Marsha had wanted to go to China, mainly for visiting museums for their ceramics and porcelain ware, but couldn’t find anyone to go with her.  I was going to Singapore, Fujian province and Guangdong province with my brother, so I invited her along, as she’d have free accommodation in Singapore and, with the help of our contacts in China, free or very cheap accommodation in China.  The area in Guangdong province we were going to is also a porcelain-producing area, making vases, tea sets and bowls, which I thought would at least compensate Marsha, in some way, for missing out on the big museums in Beijing and Shanghai.

The trip to Guangdong province was to visit my father’s village, which my brother had been to before, a few times, and to see my paternal aunts and cousins, whom I’d never met.  It’s an area that speaks the Cháozhōu (Teochew) dialect, which—being closer geographically to Fujian province—is closer linguistically to the Fujian (Hokkien) dialect across the border than to the Guangdong (Cantonese) dialect, none of which bears much phonetic resemblance to Mandarin, the lingua franca in China.

I’ve always taught my students to be effective with their use of language, especially in real life, by using the easiest formulae because there’s not enough time to search for the most appropriate expression for a particular occasion, so they won’t run the risk of saying the wrong thing or losing the interest of their listener(s).  One such one-size-fits-all formula is “hăo” (good/fine/well/OK/all right), especially when expressing agreement.  This I’d teach right from the beginner level, and reinforce throughout the year and upward progression through the grades.

One day, Marsha asked me, “Why do the local stallholders look surprised every time I make payment for an item I’m buying from them?”  I asked her to run through the whole procedure, step by step.  She said, “I’d go up to a stall, point at an item I want, and ask [in Mandarin], ‘duōshăo qián? / How much money?’  They’d tell me, and I’d say [in Mandarin], ‘wŏ măi / I buy’, and take out my money, which is when they’d look surprised.”  It so happens that in the Cháozhōu (Teochew) dialect, ‘wà măi’ means ‘I don’t want’.   

No wonder those stallholders in Cháozhōu reacted the way they did: this woman had just proclaimed she was not interested, then proceeded to hand over her money.

What I do not understand to this day, though, is why Marsha had chosen not to use the easier, more effective way of expressing agreement, taught from beginner's level, which is: hăo.

(Event happened 1997)



PS:  Haha, I've just realised, after posting this account, that it is just like the other blog about confusing communication (see Confusing communicationCzech), which also involves a woman (me) saying one thing and doing another.  No wonder they say women often mean yes when they say no.  So Marsha and I have both contributed to this myth!  aiya.


Memory loss (London)

A student, Alex, who handles multi-million pound investment deals had trouble remembering Chinese learned from the week before, and expressed his embarrassment each time with, “I have a short term memory, I’m afraid.”  After a few more occurrences of this, he came up with, “My short term memory is becoming a long term problem.”

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A noddy's guide to mushrooming (Czech Republic)

If it’s still sitting there when you come along, ask yourself what’s wrong with it?  Why hasn’t it been picked already by the experts—the citizens of Hutĕ?  If they don’t want it, would you?  (Clue: the answer is no.)

If it looks wholesome, ask yourself why haven’t the worms already chewed it to bits?  Cut it open longitudinally to see if it’s hole-ridden.  (Clue: the answer is more likely to be yes.)

If it’s brightly coloured, especially if it looks like those beautiful striking red toadstools with white dots in fairy tales, stay clear.  (Clue:  not all that’s attractive is always palatable.)

If it has a slimy sticky top, is of a nondescript shade of dark brown and almost hidden from view in the forests around Hutĕ, it might be the edible type.  The sticky top has to be removed, which entails a lot of work.  (Clue:  there’s no such thing as an easy lunch.)

Hunting for mushrooms in the fairly open forest—with 100ft-tall fir trees—requires keen eyesight to spot the camouflaged ones and to differentiate between the real McCoy and the mimickers.

Hunting for mushrooms in the fir thickets—with branches growing horizontally outwards right down to mid-shin or knee height—requires scrambling around at ground level, sometimes on all fours, encountering animals’ droppings at close quarters.  If one finds crawling around on the forest floor undignified and decides to advance along in an upright position, one risks walking through spiders’ webs full in the face, having branches whip back at one’s face and in one’s eyes, hair clawed at, arms and face scratched, and legs pricked through the trousers by the pine needles.

If you’re still undeterred by all this, an hour of mushrooming might net you a basketful of the fungus, but you spend hours processing them—peeling and scraping.  The sticky-skin type will fight back by refusing to leave your fingers, so that you end up with your fingers full of bits of sticky skin which no amount of flicking will remove.  The drying variety will need to be sliced thinly and placed on a drying rack—pray for sunny dry weather continuously for a few days for this, or they’ll just go mouldy.

Then the cooking: cutting them into little pieces for soups, bigger pieces for stir-frying in garlic or to go into a stew, halving the smaller ones for pickling, battering big whole ones for schnitzelling.  

Finally, the long-awaited moment:  the enjoying of the fruits of your hard labour.  This will take about five minutes.  Max.  (For the pickling and drying varieties, you’ll have to wait a lot longer before they're ready, but the eating time is about the same: five minutes, max.)

Friday, 19 August 2011

Treacherous language (Czech Republic)

A young man who had a massage yesterday asked for another one today.  One of the first things I do with follow-ups is to ask them if their backs (or whichever areas where they’d received a massage from me on the previous occasion) are better.  He said, in English, “Yes, I’m fine.  My back’s good.”  

I got him to sit down in a chair, as before, for the massage—my preferred way as it’s easier for me to work on their backs if they are vertical.  He then asked me, in English, “Is it better if I lie?”  For a moment, I thought he meant should he not have told the truth (about his back being good)—perhaps because there's then no need for a massage.  Mr Red Currant had got me to give him a back massage last year (and for the record: for free, too) when there was nothing wrong with his backall he wanted was to practise his English.   

As I looked at the young man uncomprehendingly, he pointed at the bed.  Ah, he meant "lie down".

Confusing communication—Czech (Czech Republic)

Not being able to speak Czech, I use the minimal of verbal language to convey my intention/meaning, and only simple utterances in English that the Czechs might be able to understand, supplementing them with body language.

Five years ago, I‘d sorted out the back injury of Mr Red Currant’s son-in-law, incurred when repairing the barn roof.  I did not take any money for that treatment, conveying the message through Vláda (who acted as my translator), and he returned the week after with a food hamper from Prague to thank me.

Since then, I’ve acquired a bit of a reputation for relieving aches and pains.  The year after their son-in-law, the Red Currants jumped onto the massage bandwagon, and the Prague lawyer in the first two cottages (knocked into one bigger house) and her mother asked for one, too, as there were three young children to carry around.  Then Mr Singer (so-named because he looks like a famous Czech singer) wanted one for himself, followed by one the year after for his in-law, who shuffled into the room half-bent in obvious pain and walked out upright and pain-free.  Next was Mrs Big House across the village green, then a year later her next door neighbour in the other half of the big house (which used to be the residence of the manager of the glass factory nearby—see The unconventional passenger), who was the last to succumb.

My idea at the beginning was that these people being OAPs, I wasn’t going to take any payment from them.  At the end of the session, they’d try to pay me, and I’d say, “No, no,” and walk away, which they’d look very puzzled about.  I’d thought they were looking that way because they couldn’t understand how anyone would want to do anything for free, especially hard physical work like massage (with the oil thrown in free as well).  Later I found out that the Czech way of saying ‘yes’ is ‘ano’ (pronounced something like ‘ah-nor’ in a rising tone), shortened to ‘no’ (still in a rising tone).  My English “no, no” sounds like their ‘yes’, which is contradicted by my then walking away without taking the money.

Women have always been said to mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘no’.  Maybe it’s Czech women who started this?

Gentleman's massage (Czech Republic)

At the massage session yesterday at the mansion house (held in the pavilion because it was a scorcher of a day), Jana’s mother (of the blueberry fame—see The unconventional passenger) came for her second hand massage.  Second massage on the hand, not a massage that's secondhand.  

Libushka also wanted a hand massage this time, but asked for an additional quick massage of the neck and shoulder ridge area, specifying in English, “Just a gentle massage.”  This meant not applying the oil and thus not requiring her to remove her top. 

Jana’s mother took to the idea, and asked for one for herself after Libushka.  She’d caught the phrase but, not speaking much English, if any at all, she reproduced it as “gentleman’s massage”, which she then repeated to the rest of the people who came along after her.

I rather like her description of the version that doesn’t require them to take off their clothes and therefore allows them to retain their dignity.

Chinese frugality (London/China)

At SBTC (see Fog capital), we’d get requests from the Chinese side to organise visits to British companies or factories.  They’d give us details such as when they’d be arriving, staying for how long, what kind of companies/factories they’d like to visit, and we’d start compiling a list of likely candidates and find out if they'd like to host a Chinese delegation.  Once an itinerary was drawn up, we’d get back to the Chinese to see if it’d suit them.

In those days, we used the telex (sending out a tape punched with holes representing the letters of the alphabet).

On this particular occasion, we couldn’t get through to the Chinese side, so we’d try again.  And again.  And again.  As we got closer to their departure date, we decided to phone them, even though it was a lot more expensive.  There was also a time difference of seven hours which was tricky, because it entailed one of us (and it had to be a Chinese-speaker) ringing them no later than 10am London time.

I was that appointed Chinese-speaker.  When I finally got through to them, the first thing I asked was if their telex machine had broken down, for we had to get in touch with them a few more times about this imminent visit of theirs.  They were surprised at the question, “No.  Our telex machine is in good working order.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  Then why were we unable to get through to them over the last few days?  “Oh,” they said, “it’s because we switch off the machine when we’re not using it.”

(Event happened 1985)

Fog capital (London)

I worked on and off, 1985-1990, at a quango [quasi NGO]—SBTC (Sino-British Trade Council)—that offered a (then) free service to British companies wishing to do business with China, organising inward missions (Chinese delegations to the UK) and outward missions (British delegations to China).  

The Chinese have a nickname for London: wùdū 雾都 (fog capital).  We took great pains to tell them that such events were a thing of the past, the last one being the Great Smog (or the Big Smoke, which is London’s nickname) which took place in 1952.  On the day this particular Chinese delegation was due to arrive in London, their plane got diverted to Manchester—because London was fogged out.

(Event happened 1985?/1986?)

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Never off duty (London)

I was waiting for a bus one day along with a woman and her 5-year-old daughter who kept asking every 30 seconds, “When is the bus coming?  When is the bus coming?”  I said to her, pointing at the GPS board, “You see that thing up there?  And do you see on the left it says ‘253’ and below it ‘254’—that is the number of the bus that’s coming next and the one after it.  In the middle is the place where it is going.  The number on the right tells you when the bus is coming, so 5 means 5 minutes.  So you can see for yourself how long it'll take before the bus gets here.”  The mother asked me, “Are you a teacher?”

Chinese wavelength (London)

On my CALL (Computer Aided Language Learning) research project in the mid-80s, I shared an office with the programmer.  I was to design the teaching material, and he to come up with a program—to put it simply—for the learner to negotiate his/her way around that material. 

It was a big office, so I equipped it with my own kettle and coffee-making ingredients.  One day, after a couple of hours of being completely sucked into the world of designing Chinese teaching material, I decided to stop for a coffee and checked with the programmer, “David, coffee?”  He said, “Yes, please.”  I asked, “Milk?”  He said, “Yes, a bit.”  I asked, “How bit?” 

(Update 231111:  Someone's given me the feedback that my "how bit?" is not clear enough.  Let me use a parallel example to illustrate it:


Q:  Milk?
A:  Yes, a little.
Q:  How little?)

(Event happened 1986)

Learning Chinese: tones (London)

One of the first things speakers of Western languages are made conscious of about Chinese is that it is a tonal language and conveying a sound in the wrong tone could render the message incomprehensible or, worse, offensive.  I try and reassure my students that it is not as big an issue as it is often made out to be. 

A particular incident, however, has made me change my mind about being so sanguine over tones not playing such a big part.  During a conversation about what he had done over Christmas, including what presents he had given his parents, a student told me he’d given his mother a xiăo shū (“little book”, 3rd tone and 1st tone), which made sense.  I then started to get a bit alarmed when he went on to describe his mother pruning and watering it.  It turned out that he’d meant xiăo shù (“little tree”, 3rd tone and 4th tone)—a bonsai (which is the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese version 盆栽 / pénzāi / “basin cultivate”).

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Czech chaps chivalrous—not (Czech Republic)


Since my first visit in 1993 to Prague and Svetla, I’ve always had a good impression of the Czech people—they are pleasant and polite, and do not stare at the obvious outsider like me—except for one particular aspect for which I can find no explanation.

In my last five visits, I have been left to struggle alone with my big suitcase down Metro stairs, laborious step by laborious step, letting down the wheels of the suitcase gently onto the step below, while the good people of the Czech Republic, even young men, go past without a sideway glance, let alone offer to help.  Something that would not happen in London.

On this trip out on the coach from London, I noticed that the young man next to me, who is Czech and from Prague, was rather cramped in his aisle seat, being about 6’ tall.  So, when one of the two English ladies in front got off early at Heidelberg, I suggested to the other one, whom I’d befriended at Victoria in London, that she sit with me, so that the young man could stretch out his long legs in the double seat for the rest of the journey to Prague.  The young man never thanked me for this, not even when I checked a few hours later if he was now much more comfortable.  

When the bus was delayed by 15 minutes getting into Prague, which would make my getting the connection to Pelhrimov rather tight, I asked the young man if he could help me find the right bus bay when we got to Florenc (bus terminus in Prague), explaining that I was only asking because I was now short of time or I’d have done it myself.  He said he would help me, but when we got off and I was claiming my suitcase from the hold, I noticed that he was not looking out for me at all but chatting to an older man.  Even when I made a point of going up to him to remind him that I needed his help (because he could speak more English than a lot of Czech people I've come across), his response was now that he didn’t know much about such things, and pointed me in the direction of the information area at one end of the bus terminus.

The one occasion I was unexpectedly offered some help was last summer as I struggled up the steps at Florenc in Prague, by now resigned to not being noticed at all.  A young man, butch in build and dressed in dark clothes, picked up my suitcase and took it effortlessly up the steps.  I thanked him profusely, and as he turned away, I saw on the back of his jacket the word POLICIE.

Update Monday 220811:  I'd arrived at Roztyly in Prague and had to go to Florenc to catch the London coach.  Had to struggle down the stairs as usual -- no escalators -- and found myself thinking about this blog, wondering if anything might happen this time to redeem the reputation of Czech chaps.  Maybe I was thinking very loudly because halfway down, a young man did indeed stop and offer!  The train was just pulling in and he very helpfully told me if I was going to Florenc, that was my train.  Not only that, he also told me I should stay at that end as that was where the exit for Florenc was.  This young man had started out from Pelhrimov -- I remember seeing him in the queue there -- and his English was not bad.  He is a civil engineering student, and his name is Vojta.  Czech chaps:  you have a lot to learn from Vojta.

Room 711 (St Petersburg, Russia)

I’d joined a package tour in Helsinki to St Petersburg, as recommended by my Finnish friends.  The group of 14 or so turned out to be from down under, one of whom would pronounce her room number (711) with such clipped vowels (sounding something like “sivin ilivin”), when asking for her key, that every one of the different Russian receptionists on duty had trouble understanding her and she’d be asked to repeat it every single time. 

After a few times of this, I helpfully suggested that she might like to spell out­­ the numbers in isolation—as “seven one one”, which would perhaps solve the problem.  So she took my advice the next time she asked for her room key at reception: “Can I have the key to Room Seven One One, please?”  The receptionist on duty this time said, “Oh, you mean Seven Eleven?”

(Event happened August 1996)

The police escort (Tallinn, Estonia)

After a day wandering around the old part of Tallinn in Estonia, I took the bus back to the harbour to board the ferry for the return journey to Helsinki.  I headed for the ferry which was in clear view—except that, from that distance, I couldn’t see the wire fences that separated the area I was walking in from the ferry embarkation area.  By the time I got close enough to see that I couldn’t get through and would have to walk all the way back, and enter the embarkation area via a different opening, a police car had arrived, having been alerted to the fact that this obviously foreign intruder was wandering around where she shouldn’t go.  I pointed at the ferry, and they kindly offered to take me there, so it was that I arrived at the ferry in a police car, with the whole of the ferry population turning out on deck, watching keenly, wondering what I might’ve done.  When I got out and the policemen and I waved a friendly goodbye to each other, I could feel a collective sigh of relief from the passengers—and perhaps disappointment that there was no drama to be enacted in front of their eyes after all.

(Event happened August 1996)

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The original spoonerism? (Czech Republic)

Talking to Vláda and Jana about spoonerism, I'm told that the Czech word for 'spoon' is lžíce (sounds something like “le-zit-se”), but people often pronounce it as žlíce (sounds something like “ze-lit-se”).

Now, spoonerism is supposed to be named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner, a real person who lived 1844-1930 and was the Warden of New College, Oxford, but it is so tempting to think that this Czech spoonerism over the pronunciation of spoon is the real inspiration for the term, don’t you think?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Spoonerism: Shandy the dog (London)

My beloved ex-supervisor Dr Paul Mulligan Thompson* had a Japanese academic come to stay for a few weeks.  One day he came home to find the visitor issuing the following command to the family dog:  “Sandy, shit!  Sandy, shit!”

(Event happened mid-1980s)

*https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/jun/27/guardianobituaries.obituaries

The spooky cards (London / Taiwan)

I’d come across a twee card in London that I then bought and sent off to 胡老大 Hú lăo dà.  It featured a Victorian setting:  a little girl in floral smocks and pigtails, wearing a mop cap, sitting on a high stool with her back to the reader, writing at a bureau with a huge quill.  At the foot of the high stool is a kitten playing with a ball of wool that had become a bit unravelled.


Hú lăo dà was at the time (1978) doing his national service on the island of 金门 Jīnmén (Quemoy / "gold gate"), Taiwan’s (Republic of China’s) front-line military base just off the coast of Fujian province.  Any post to him would have to go first to Taipei’s GPO before being re-routed to Jīnmén.  It took five to seven days for post to get from London to Taipei, so to Jīnmén it’d be another three days.

The very day after I sent off my Victorian girl card to Hú lăo dà, I received in the post in London a bookmark from him, posted from Jīnmén, with exactly the same Victorian picture.  

He could not possibly have received my card already and then spotted its replica in the shops, which would then prompt him to buy it for me.  Besides, the Victorian scene would be an alien concept to Chinese card producers, and therefore not likely to be a common find even in Taipei, never mind in Jīnmén, an outback military outpost of all places.  And even if it was, by some strange odds, available in Jīnmén, why did Hú lăo dà pick out that card of all cards to send to me??  Very spooky indeed.

The spooky ashtrays (Taipei, Taiwan)

Hú lăo dà and I had instant rapport the first time we met, up in Líshān ([Chinese] Pear Mountain) in July 1975 in the hills of central Taiwan.  We didn’t have to communicate aloud most of the time, as we’d be thinking the same thoughts, so we just needed to make eye contact to confirm we were on the wavelength about the same thing.

When I went back for a visit in 1979, he and I had arranged to meet up one evening, having our own things to do during the day.  As soon as we saw each other in the evening, we both said, simultaneously, “I have a present for you!”  Since we couldn’t decide who should be presenting to whom first, we thought we’d do it at the same time.  So, one two three, we whipped out our respective presents for each other.

I’d bought him a brass ashtray, which was in the shape of a foot, with the toes dipping down as grooves for resting the cigarettes.  What had made me buy it for him was the fact that it was extra large (he wore size 12 shoes, being 6’ 3”), and it had an extra long second toe, a feature he and his siblings shared, taking after their mother.  I’m the opposite, being the only one in my family with the extra long second toe.

What he had bought for me was also a brass ashtray, the exact replica of the one I’d bought for him, except that it was extra small (I wear size 3 shoes, being 5’ 1”)—one of the two deciding factors in his purchasing it, the other being it had an extra long second toe.

So we’d both gone our own ways during the day, but come across the same brass ashtray, albeit in different shops in different parts of Taipei, and immediately thought of each other.  And bought them for each other for exactly the same reasons.

British brainteasers (UK)

When I first arrived in Britain 34 years ago, one of the things that caught my eye were the words “Free House” over the pub.  Wow, I thought, that’s very generous of them, letting people drink free.  It turned out to mean “not tied to a particular brewery”.

These days banks have signs over their ATMs, announcing “free cash withdrawals”.  This does not mean you can withdraw cash for free as in you’re given the money, but that it is free of a handling fee—which used to be imposed on people who didn’t have an account with that particular bank, but is now waived so that one can withdraw cash from any bank in addition to one’s own without paying the handling fee.  Herein lies an issue of parsing: is it free cash or is it free withdrawals?

Sandy, a Chinese academic over on a British Council grant, went on a hike with the university’s rambling club, and during the lunch break, as often at a pub as it is possible to arrange on such walks through the countryside, she saw a sign outside the door saying:  “No travellers allowed.”  Being a visitor to the British shores, she felt that she could perhaps be called a traveller and was therefore rather concerned that she was being barred from English pubs.  More importantly, why?  I had to explain to her that it is a term used for referring to gypsies.

Another thing I'd see, when I first arrived in 1977, was the sign at petrol stations for what was available. Under TOILETS I'd see TWO STROKES, which rather alarmed me, bringing back memories of the diminutive deputy headmaster, Mr Wee, at the school where I did three months of temporary teaching in early 1973 while waiting for my 'A' level results from Cambridge. It was Mr Wee who sorted out the problematic students -- he might've stood at 4'10" but he had a big cane. My English friend told me TWO STROKES referred to the type of diesel.

Monday, 8 August 2011

A series of snakes (France)

In the course of trying to help a student’s cousin from Hong Kong find work teaching Chinese in 2006, I’d stumbled across an online advertisement for unpaid work in France:  “Help needed with gardening and general work.  Mornings only.  Afternoons free for exploring the French countryside.  Bicycle provided.  Sorry, no remuneration.  Food and board only.”  

The gardening bit rang all my bells and whistles.  I immediately emailed them to find out what they meant by ‘general work’ and where they were located in France.  The couple turned out to be British, and their "small B&B" only a two-hour hop from the French farm, so I arranged to go and visit them afterwards.

The "small B&B" was a huge manor housethe 'chateau' in the house name gives you an indicationwhich Ann and Don had bought practically in ruins and converted, by their own hands and taste, into a sumptuous pile.  They just loved such projects, being DIYers long before it became a daytime TV fashion.  Each of the four rooms upstairs was a self-contained unit of sleeping area (twin beds or double bed), a lounge area, and an en suite bathroom.  Rather like a studio flat without the cooking facilities.  Each one with a special style of its ownwhether rustic or regal.

The grounds were extensive and starting to get colonised by weeds and fast-growing plants (like lilac), hence the need for some help with the gardening.  It was a gardenholic's paradise!  I was out of the house by 6ampruning, hacking, weeding.  By 11am, the temperature in the shade would reach 38C, so I'd be forced to retreat indoors to read and write my journal.  After lunch, an enforced siesta, then out of the house again at 5pm for more slash and burn until 830pm for dinner, followed by massage for Ann (and three days later, a converted Don) before bedtime at 930pm.  Half an hour of reading, then lights outboth in the room and in my head.

I'd never been able to get to grips with meditation—this emptying of the mind stuff—but for those ten days, I was in a constant and continual state of spontaneous TM (Transcendental Meditation), with the gardening replacing the mantra.  Ten days of sheer bliss. With a capital B.

At some point in casual conversation, I found out that Ann is 12 years older than I, and therefore born in the Year of the Snake as well.  Being 12 years older than she, her husband Don was also a Snake.  At 36 years younger than his mother, their son Ross is one, too.  So we are four Snakes in a row.

Colette of the French farm is 12 years younger than I (and 12 older than Ross).  Her mother Jeanette is 24 years older than she, and 12 older than I, so she's the same age as Ann.  (This is beginning to read like a maths homework exercise, isn’t it?)

That makes us six Snakes in a row.  What are the odds of that??

Note:  B&B = Bed and Breakfast.

Wrong footed (UK)

A flatmate in the early 80s was a stammerer as a younger boy.  In the school canteen, he’d be trying to order sausages and mash: “S-s-s-s-sausages and m-m-m-m-m-mash,” and a long queue would build up behind him, with people getting quite hot and cross with him for holding them up.

His speech therapist taught him a technique—which was to start every word with a nasal ‘n’ (not ‘en’, just the ‘n’ version of ‘mm’).  This would stop the stuttering.  So he practised all night on sausages and mash:  “n-sausages and n-mash”.

The following day, full of confidence, he stood in the food queue, ready to order his sausages and mash in half a second.  When he got up to the food display area, he found that sausages and mash were off the menu for that day, replaced by fish and chips.  So the poor boy had to start all over again, “F-f-f-f-f….”

The disappearing passenger (Czech Republic)

Last year, I was invited to visit a Czech teacher of English, Hana, who lives near Brno.  Coming back to Hutĕ, I decided to take the bus that would go via the Blueberry Junction (see blog entry The unconventional passenger), which is only 15 minutes’ walk away from Hutĕ.  This would save Vláda having to go all the way in to Pelhřimov (10 minutes’ drive away) to pick me up, which is more ecological and economical, and more fun for me as I like to find my own way around, even though I cannot speak the language.

It was a hot day in August, and the 3pm sun was beating down hard.  I saw, as I got on the bus, that everyone was seated on the driver’s side of the bus, with the right-hand side—out of the sun—all empty, so I chose the first seat, just behind the door (which is at the front).  This meant I could see the road ahead clearly—for the views (which are wonderful everywhere you look), and for a sighting of the Blueberry Junction as we approached. 

I soon discovered why my fellow passengers were all clustered on the other side.  When the bus turned out of the bus terminus, my side was now in the sun and baking.

The driver was all too conscious of this foreigner in their midst, for I stand out for miles with my non-White looks.  He was able to see me diagonally through his rear view mirror, and kept me within his sight as he drove on, looking up frequently, although he knew I was not getting off until the Blueberry Junction (Ostrovec to him when I buy the ticket), which was 20 minutes later.  I thought it was so sweet of him to be so conscientious about looking after the poor ignorant foreigner who couldn’t speak a word of his language.

After another five minutes of roasting in the sun, when someone in the seat behind the driver got off, I moved over.  This was not registered by the driver as he had his eyes on the road at the time.  

The next time he looked in his rear view mirror, there was no Oriental face to greet him back in the reflection.  The recollection of the look of panic in his eyes makes me laugh even now.  Where had the Oriental passenger gone?!?  He didn't remember her getting off.

Refusing to believe his mirror, he turned his head round and looked directly at the seat just behind the door.  Empty.  How did he manage to lose her??!!  Panic.

Then he found me—sitting right behind him.  The look of relief was another one to behold, and I still remember it vividly.  Poor man. 

He must’ve felt an even greater relief when we finally arrived at the Blueberry Junction—a burden off his hands (or eyes) at last.  He could now drive without constantly checking in his rear view mirror to make sure he didn't lose his foreign passenger again.

The homing pigeon that refuses to go home (Czech Republic)

Vláda found a pigeon sitting on the Hutĕ village green one day, apparently injured, with a bald patch in the neck area.  It was a young bird, he could tell, and had a ring tag, so it must be a homing pigeon.  Vláda put him in a coop up in his loft—which is warm, fed it some grain and left it to recover.  It did, after a couple of days.


That was a fortnight ago.  Since then, the bird has been following Vláda around, obviously associating him with food, and is refusing to go home.  Or it’s too young and doesn’t know its way home, which is perhaps how it came to be on the village green in the first place.

There’d been two other pigeons found on the village green last year.  One died of exhaustion.  Vláda put up a notice on the internet about the second one, and a week later its owner called from Brno (about 100km away) to say it’d arrived home safely.


Update on Monday 150811:  This current pigeon was last seen on Friday morning, 120811, so we assume he's plucked up the courage and gone home.  Perhaps it's the food on offer here (i.e., not good enough); perhaps it's the constant presence of Tiapka the cat (Tiapka means 'paws' in Czech, and she is so named because she has two-toed paws).  I have suggested to Vláda that he check out Tiapka's tummy contents but he prefers to think the pigeon's checked out of Hotel Hutĕ.

Update on Wednesday 170811:  Vláda says he'd gone to the trouble of getting hold of the contact number for the pigeon fanciers' association, to whom he gave the pigeon's ring tag number, and they tracked down the owner.  Vláda then got in touch with the owner, who suggested Vláda drive the bird to a place nearer his house, then release it for it to fly home on its own.  Maybe the bird got wind of this, which is why he suddenly disappeared from Hutĕ—the reason he ran away from home in the first place was he didn't like it there, and now Vláda had actually traced his owner and was going to deliver him home (well, part of the way anyway).  Vláda also said that for the whole of the fortnight in Hutĕ, the bird had never uttered a single sound, but on the morning he disappeared, he sat on the eaves and cooed at Vláda.  We both think he was saying goodbye.


Sunday, 7 August 2011

The unconventional passenger (Czech Republic)

Jana’s mother, who lives some 25km away from Hutĕ, Vláda and Jana’s tiny village of eight households, is 80 but is up with the sun and off into the woods to forage—for mainly blueberries and mushrooms—on her 50cc moped.

On one of my visits, Vláda said one day, “Fancy walking down to the junction to meet the bus from Prague [120km away]?”  The junction is 1.3km’s walk away, down a road that might see half a dozen cars a day if it was lucky, and past some ponds and houses—all with their own vegetable plots and flower beds (the Czechs are keen garden tenders).  At the junction stands a cherry tree barely taller than I, yet bears more fruit than I can eat in one waiting.

The bus approached, slowed down and came to a halt.  We walked up to the passenger door as it opened.  I was expecting a visitor.  Instead, there was a basket of blueberries sitting on the floor right by the driver, which he then proceeded to hand over to Vláda.  Since then, Vlada would call that junction The Blueberry Junction as a point of reference for non-Czech-speaking me.

Apparently this has been the arrangement for the last ten years since Vláda and Jana moved full time to Hutĕ, a village of six terraced houses and one big house that were home to the workers and the manager of the glass factory nearby.   That was more than 100 years ago now, back in the days of the 19th century, before the glass industry in the area went into decline around 1850s–1900s when they ran out of trees to burn for their furnaces, Vláda said

Jana’s mother would fill her baskets by 8am, then flag down the long-distance bus from Prague and persuade the driver to take them—often filled with blueberries or mushrooms, but sometimes potatoes or apples from her own garden, and even occasionally complete with pastry ready made by her for Jana to pop straight into the oven to make an apple pie.  

Bags are charged separately on long-distance buses here in the Czech Republic, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a basket of fruit travelling alone—regularly.

Did you come here to die? (Sydney, Australia)

A secondary school friend, Ay Ling from Indonesia, arrived in Sydney in the early 70s.  As she got into a taxi at the airport, the driver asked her, “Did you come here to die?”  She was shocked to be greeted with such a question, and set him straight, “No!!  I came here for a holiday!”  It turned out the driver meant “today”.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

A Chinese teacher's status (London)

I was told one day that I’d been assigned a new student from the FCO* who was not a beginner.  So the first thing I did upon meeting him was to try and establish what his level was, what his learning and assessment needs were, so that I could prepare him accordingly. 

After questions like, “When did you last do any Chinese?  What level did you get up to?  What textbooks did you use?  What exams are you doing?” he stopped me with, “Before you go any further with this line of questioning, let me tell you now that I don’t need to do any exams, because I’m the new boss.  But my post has not been confirmed yet, so please keep this to yourself until it’s formally announced.”

I said to him, “OK, since you have not been officially confirmed as the ambassador, I don’t have to address you as géxià [Your Excellency].  You will have to address me as nín [respectful form of ‘you’], however, as I’m your teacher.  And by the way, a teacher is a nín for life in the Chinese culture.”

We got on famously after that because he found my irreverent sense of humour refreshing.

(Event happened 1994)

*Foreign and Commonwealth Office [UK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

I cannot say (London)

My new British ambassador student asked me during a tea break one day, “I understand you teach evening classes as well.  What are your evening students like?”

“Well, when I first started in the mid-80s, we used to get mainly OAPs* who wanted to learn the Chinese language more because of their interest in the culture and the poetry—to help them read Chinese literature in the original—than for using the language itself out in real life.  It also got them out of the house, gave them a social life and, from what I heard, saved them a bit on heating in the winter months.  A decade later, we started to get younger types:  people who’d either come back from time out in China, were about to go out, would like to get a job out there, or who’d married Chinese spouses.

“Let me tell you about an interesting one.  He’s just retired from the MOD**.  When you asked him, for oral practice, things like what his job was, where he worked, what his telephone number was, his answer was always: ‘wǒ bù néng shuō [I cannot say].’”

My ambassador student got quite interested, “MOD, eh?  And just retired, eh?  I might know him.  What’s his name?”

In reply, I said, “wǒ bù néng shuō.”

(Event happened 1994) 

*OAP = Old Age Pensioners
**MOD = Ministry of Defence.

Hold the plane! (Jakarta, Indonesia)

My three weeks in Indonesia had come to an end and I was driven out to the Jakarta airport good and early for my Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight back.  After checking in my bags, I went up to the gallery as there wasn’t anywhere else to go—this was January 1974. 

The announcements over the tannoy were muffled at best, with even the Indonesian ones being incomprehensible to my Indonesian students, never mind the English ones.  On the tarmac I could see an SIA plane, presumably mine.  Then, to my horror, I saw my fellow passengers walking out towards it.  I dashed down from the gallery as fast as my ex-athlete’s legs could go.

The passport control man, however, did not share my sense of urgency.  He asked me if it was my first visit to Indonesia.  Fair enough, they always asked that.  Yes, I said.  Did I like Indonesia?  Yes, yes, I did, and please, please, my plane’s about to leave.  “Don’t worry, it’ll wait.  And did you have a good time here on your first visit to Indonesia?”  Yes, yes, I did, and please, please, please, the plane will leave without me if I don’t go now.  “Don’t worry, don’t worry.  And do you think you will come back again?”  Finally, he released me.

After my first few big strides towards the plane which was about 100 metres away, the plane’s propellers started churning.  I hitched up my ankle-length batik dress and started to run.  Trust me to choose to wear my new purchase of a long and tightish dress for this occasion of all occasions!

I could see the pilots in the cockpit, so I waved to let them know I was bound for their plane—there were no other planes in the immediate vicinity, but I thought I should indicate my interest all the same, just in case.  They waved back, but the propellers carried on whirring.

They then started pulling away the front (first class cabin) gangplank, so I yelled and hitched my skirt up higher—to attract the attention of the men dragging off the gangplank as well as to run faster.  It worked, for they noticed me, and pushed it back into place.  

As I clattered my way up the gangplank, the air stewardesses and stewards were lined up on both sides, looking like they were receiving royalty.  Except that they had their hands on their hips, wore a cross look, and chided, “Why so late??  Why so late?!!”

Typically, I’d chosen a window seat, so I had to squeeze past two passengers to get to my seat.  I’d barely clunk-clicked my seatbelt into position when the plane took off—it’d already started taxiing the moment I got on and they shut the door. 

The American woman next to me, Sally (who remains a friend to this day), said, “The whole plane was watching your progression with great interest through the windows, wondering if you were going to make it.  My, you can really run!”

Mr Red Currant (Czech Republic)

The Red Currants next door in the tiny village of Hutĕ are in their 70s.  He's a wizened little chappie, just scraping in at 5ft, but is very fit—goes cycling annually around the Czech Republic with his four siblings, the youngest of whom is a sister at 65.

On that particular day, Mr Red Currant* had gone up to Prague for the day and was not due back until 10pm at the earliest.  I nipped over to his house to give his wife her second massage, but in spite of knocking on the door and calling out "Ahoj!" (pronounced "ahoy"
Czech for "hello") several times, waiting in between each time for a response, nobody came to the door.  

I was turning away after the 4th or 5th time when the door was opened by Mrs Red Currant who gestured me into the living room, which is at the back of the house through the kitchen, where, to my surprise, I found Mr Red Currant.  But he wasn't due back until 10pm and it was only 630pm!  And he was in the middle of doing up his trousers.  Had I interrupted something??!!

Just as I was wondering if I should go, Mr Red Currant piped up, "My wife is very satisfied."  Oh dear.  I didn't know him well enough for this sort of confession.  I don't even talk to my sisters or girlfriends about such delicate matters.  He went on, "My wife's very satisfied with your first massage.  Her back is so much better now." 

I think now that he'd just got in from Prague and was changing out of his outdoor clothes into his at-home clothes.


(Event happened August 2010)






*I call him Mr Red Currant because I'd once helped him pick redcurrants for his wife's cake, his Czech surname being less manageable for me.