Monday, February 28, 2011

When in Doubt?

Whenever I traveled through non-English-speaking countries, my first inclination was always to speak Spanish. Considering that most of my travels had been in Spanish-speaking countries such as México, Puerto Rico, and Spain that seemed only too logical. Even when I traveled in Portugal I relied on tried and true Spanish although I had very mixed results.

Then I went to England and thought I was leaving Spanish behind. My two extended visits to England were mostly in the West Country, that is, Devon and Cornwall. I assumed that speaking and understanding English couldn’t possibly be a problem. Well, speaking it certainly wasn’t, but understanding the local lingo? Good grief! My host and his daughter spoke impeccable Brit English but when we ventured into the countryside and the small villages I discovered that at times I didn’t understand a word that was spoken. They were speaking English, of course, but with what I assumed to be a Celtic accent. I remember my joy once in a pub out on the moors of Dartmoor discovering that someone in the room was speaking Spanish. I searched the environs and saw a handsome, touristy Spaniard regaling a group of friends with his adventures. Spanish tourists in Dartmoor? Well, why not? I, a tourist from Oklahoma, was there, wasn’t I?

When I was with my hosts I didn’t have to worry about understanding the locals—they interpreted for me if need be. But when I set out on my own, that was a different story. One day I rode the bus into downtown Plymouth, that bustling city by the sea, from where the Mayflower supposedly set forth. I walked around the busy outdoor mall, inhaling the salty sea air and shopping for spices and herbs, especially cilantro, in the various Indian shops and markets that abounded there. Finally the aroma of baked goods enticed me into a shop where I noticed a long line of people [a queue in England] waiting patiently to order pasties, those delectable confections of pastry filled with meat, cheese, potatoes, and vegetables such as onions, leeks, turnips, and rutabaga. I took my turn in line and waited. When finally I reached the counter the clerk asked me something but I couldn’t understand what she said. Naturally she must have asked what I wanted but I was so surprised at her accent that I felt compelled to reply in Spanish. Since neither of us could understand the other, I finally pointed to the pasty I wanted. When I asked, ¿Cuánto es? she looked at me as if I were a deranged lunatic. Then I held out my wallet and pointed to it. She picked out, hopefully, the right change and I left with a most tasty pasty [please note that those two words do not rhyme).

That evening I related my tale to my host and his daughter who laughed heartily at my misadventure. “But,” said the daughter, “you both spoke English. Even if you couldn’t understand the clerk, she would have understood you.”

Well, of course, I should have known that.

When it was time for me to leave England, the daughter and a friend accompanied me to a travel agent to make my reservations for my return flight home. They asked my name and when they couldn’t understand me, I spelled it out for them—H-e-r-n-a-n-d-e-zee. My host’s daughter burst out laughing. The travel agent looked at me in a perplexed manner.

“It’s zed,” said the daughter.

“What is?” I asked.

“The last letter in your name.”

Now I thought I was using the English alphabet. Since when did x-y-zee become x-y-zed? Of course, in reality, I supposed, it was the other way around—somewhere in American history zed became zee. Perhaps I should stick with equis-y griega-zeta.

Then a few years later came my trip to Hong Kong and I knew that if I were in doubt what to speak there, it definitely wouldn’t be Spanish. Or would it?

Hong Kong, December, 1995—a year and a half before the British relinquished control of the colony to the Chinese—I assumed that everyone would know how to speak English. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, the hotel employees and the tour guides spoke English but everywhere else Chinese dialects were the languages of choice.

Although this was bustling, hustling overpopulated Hong Kong, the stores displayed Christmas wares everywhere. On both sides of Victoria Harbor, tall buildings were decorated in bright, colorful lights with Christmas trees, Santa Claus and reindeers, angels, manger scenes, the Three Wise Men—everything and anything that one could conjure up as Christmasy. At night these Christmas lights danced their reflections on the harbor giving an even more festive holiday mood. And everywhere I went I heard the sing-song tones of the Chinese dialects resonating with traditional Christmas music filtering out from the open doors of the stores. A strange but pleasing mixture of two very different cultures.

Our tour included breakfast every morning in the hotel restaurant that overlooked Victoria Harbor. That was the only opportunity that my traveling companion and I had to speak English with other travelers. The rest of the time we were left to fend for ourselves in the Hong Kong jungle of strange dialects. One morning we found ourselves seated at a table with two ladies from Switzerland. My companion discovered that one of the ladies spoke English and proceeded to converse with her. The other lady, however, did not speak English. So, falling back on my old standby of when in doubt, I spoke to her in Spanish. [I noticed that my companion rolled her eyes when I did this—probably thinking “There she goes again with the Spanish!”] To my astonishment the Swiss lady replied in Spanish! As it turned out she was from the Italian-speaking section of Switzerland and could speak not only Italian but French and Spanish as well. She was thrilled to find someone besides her companion who could speak a language that she spoke. And, to tell the truth, so was I.

So, when in doubt, speak Spanish—even in Hong Kong? Well, why not?

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