A few months back I wrote a story about an interlude in Paris.
My wife and I, unable to function in French in a city in the throes of the Bastille Day holiday, were so disheartened that we were thinking of leaving three days ahead of schedule.
In an empty subway station, in the middle of the night, the situation was completely turned around because of the kindness of one old man who was able to make us both feel welcome and wanted, even though he spoke no more English than we spoke French.
I thought it was kind of a nice little story with a sort of "kindness transcends" feeling about it.
But a high school French instructor wrote to the paper about what a dunderhead I was for "not having the good manners to learn French before going to Paris."
I took three years of high school Latin and never got better than a D. And after those three years, I still couldn't translate the slogan on a cigar band.
After reading the teacher's letter in the paper, I got a bit ticked, kicked a wall or two, went into the bathroom and delivered a lecture about intellectual arrogance to some fixtures and then came out and wrote a story about communicating without words.
A Spiritual Debt
I wound up owing the teacher; after all, the good ones are supposed to make you think.
Though I really do believe emotions can be conveyed effectively without words, an exchange of information means that the visitor and the visited at least have a crack at trying to understand each other's languages.
Even that doesn't always work.
We arrived in England on our first trip abroad eight hours late, jet-lagged and long in the face.
When I paid the cab driver after we got to London, he tipped his cap and said, right there in front of my wife Joyce and everybody: "Things are bound to get better, sir. Just keep your pecker up."
I was still in shock when, after checking into our hotel, the desk clerk asked Joyce what time "she'd like to be knocked up" in the morning.
I've since heard those expressions in a dozen jokes, but at that time it made us both wonder about that English reserve we'd heard so much about. A knock-up is a wake-up call and a pecker is a chin.
In Soho we were looking for a theater and were told that it was "free squares down."
"Free" means "three" when you're in Soho, and anywhere in England a "square" is a city block. Here's the problem: In London almost none of the squares is actually square, and if you ask for a square they'll show you a small park with benches and statues.
When we did find the theater, the girl in the box office said: "Just awfully sorry that there are no stalls left because the play is such a bomb."
My first thought was that I hadn't meant to bring a horse, anyway, so I wouldn't need a stall for it, and if the play was such a bomb, I didn't think I wanted to see it. It turned out, though, that stalls are the best seats in the house--what we call orchestra seats--and a bomb, though a turkey in America, is a hit in England.
The Same Language?
I'd have bet $1 billion I spoke English. That's American billion, not English. And American billion is a thousand million, while an English billion is a million million.
In Austria nearly everybody speaks English, which I found was very fortunate when I tried out my German.
In my league, though, one does not go out and spend more than $20 on booklets and tapes on "Getting Along in German" without giving the results a try.
On a street in Salzburg, my wife and I were looking for a bus stop. We stopped a middle-aged couple. I smiled and said: "Bitte, wo ist die bustenhalter." The couple first looked surprised and then started to laugh.
"They are all around you," said the man, laughing. Then he said: "But more around the ladies than the men."
At that, the woman with him became almost hysterical and turned her face toward the wall of a building as she tried to compose herself.
"If you mean a bushaltestelle , a 'bus stop,' " the man said, "there is one at the corner. A bustenhalter is a brassiere."
My wife joined in the laughter while I tried to apologize. "I'm sorry. I hope I didn't embarrass."
"No, no, it's all right," said the man. "No one is angry. You cannot be angry when you laugh. Always, it is good to laugh. Ja ?"
As we toured Norway and Sweden, Ursela, our Globus tour guide, said she was going to show us something very important in Scandinavian history. "Da place vere Harold Blue Toot set two ruined stones on top of each other in honor of his father."
There was a lot of speculation among us tourists about Harold and his Blue Toot. Besides being a noted ruined-stone stacker, was he a Viking with a funny nose? Was his Norseman's hat adorned with blue horns?