Tag Archives: Foreign Languages

TIA: This is Africa

Long bus rides may not be the most pleasant experience, but it’s usually not difficult to merely buy a bus ticket, right? Well, not everywhere. As Leonardo DiCaprio says in Blood Diamond, “TIA, right mate? This is Africa.”

Chris and I arrived in Johannesburg on a November Sunday around one in the afternoon. We took the metro to Hatfield, a student-centered suburb of Pretoria, and opened our Coast to Coast backpacking book, a pocket-sized, pink- and purple-striped guide to hostels in SA, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, and Lesotho. There was one hostel listed in Pretoria, on Arcadia Street. We asked the first guy we saw, a young, long-haired and bearded backpacker type, where it was. He said it was near but he wasn’t sure where. Then, he did something strange.

He fixed us with a steely gaze and said, “You should take a cab. I wouldn’t walk around with backpacks like that, looking like tourists. I wouldn’t really walk anywhere, actually. Welcome to South AfricaThis is South Africa. You’ll be mugged.”  Sufficiently scared out of our wits, we said thanks, and walked across the street to ask a taxi driver to take us to the address, and he said it would be 50 rand (about $7). Now, in the US, seven bucks for a cab ride is chump change. But in South Africa, you never accept the first price.  We said we’d pay him 30, but he refused.  We walked away in hopes he’d call us back, falling over himself apologizing and offering us a ride for 35 or 40 rand. But he let us walk.

Just then, a car pulled up beside us. We backed away. Cars pulling up beside you near Johannesburg is the kind of thing you read in newspaper stories under headlines like “American Backpackers Still Missing.”  The window opened, and the shaggy-haired guy we saw before stuck his head out. His dad, driving the car, had a classical guitar performance at three, and it was currently 2:15, so he had just enough time to drop us off.

We arrived at the hostel, and were greeted by the lovely Yzelle and Maj (pron. Mae), who generously offered us the private room for the same price as the dorm, because they had had their first theft at the hostel a week before and feared for people’s safety. This was the second robbery comment in the past 15 minutes, and Chris and I began to seriously doubt what we were doing hanging around there.

But, when in Africa, as in life, you can’t just shy away from challenges. And anyway, we wanted to book a bus to Nelspruit, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe gateway to Kruger National Park, home to the largest concentration of safari wildlife on the planet. Yzelle and Maj told us that, since it was Sunday, the ticket office was closed, but that we could still buy the tickets on Computicket.com, a third-party site like Ticketmaster.

We found a bus leaving Pretoria at 7:15 the next morning, and booked it using my credit card. The fine print at the end of the confirmation page read, “Please pick up tickets using the credit card of purchase and a photo ID at any supermarket counter, as tickets purchased on Computicket cannot be picked up at the bus station.” Chris and I looked at each other, stunned.

I called Computicket to explain the situation, hoping they’d come riding in on their silver stallions to save the day, just like any respectable American business would do.  The recorded voice answered the phone.

“Our offices are open from Monday to Saturday, and are closed on Sunday.”

TIA, mate.

We asked Yzelle and Maj if we could just pick the tickets up at the station if we explained what happened. They shook their heads. “If you had bought the ticket on the bus company’s website, you could have picked it up at the station.”

We started. Why did they tell us to book the ticket on Computicket, then?

To further the problem, in South Africa, bus tickets are commonly sold at the lotto ticket counter in supermarkets, as the recorded voice had said. Why? TIA. The only solution now was to get to the supermarket. We asked Yzelle and Maj where the nearest supermarket was.

“They’re all closed, I think. It’s three forty-five, and they all close at three on Sundays.”

By now, we were fuming mad. We thought that picking up the tickets the next morning was our only option. The metro opened at 5 AM. Good. But the supermarkets opened at 8. There was no way we would be able to pick up our tickets in time to catch the 7:15 bus.

“Except…” Yzelle began, “there IS a Shop Rite that’s open until 8 today down at the Menlyn Mall. You could try there.”

“Great, where’s that?” I asked.

“About 12 kilometers down the road.”

I stood with my mouth agape. I checked the map. There was Menlyn mall, all the way in the bottom right-hand corner of the map.  A taxi ride would have cost 70 Rand (9 bucks) each way, or we could walk the 8 miles, or we could try to hitchhike. Chris was steaming, slamming his hands on the bed in our room, furious that the good deal we got on the room was now ruined by heinous bureaucracy. There had to be another way.

I asked Maj if there was a bike I could borrow. She took one out, a small mountain bike built more like a tank, with a seat and handlebars meant for someone six inches shorter than me, and an old enough model that you needed a screwdriver to adjust the bars or seat, provided you could even turn it through the rusty metal caked to the columns.

I looked at this sad excuse for a bike, its chain hanging limp from the gears.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

I fixed the chain, tested the brakes (the rear brake was almost nonexistent, the front one strong – not the combination you want), and set out to bike it. 8 miles was nothing. I’d done forty before, plenty of times. I wrapped my credit card in two bills – a fifty and a ten – and, remembering what the shaggy haired guy said about not going anywhere for fear of being mugged, stuck it in my underwear.

The first danger I encountered was that in South Africa, they drive on the left. Obviously, this also means that you ride your bike on the left, and use your right hand to signal. This was a test of my concentration and balance, especially since the rear, safer brake was still located by my right hand. I navigated the first few turns on side streets near the hostel until I felt comfortable making tight left turns and wide, sweeping rights. It was weird, but I got the hang of it. Eventually, though, I had to turn onto the main road.

I rode along in the left hand lane, a bizarre feeling if I’ve ever had one, and got buzzed by two successive cars, each one passing within six inches of me. It dawned on me that mugging might not be the only unsafe thing about South Africa. Also, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, a big no-no. I immediately moved up to the curb, and, in poor cyclist etiquette, rode past pedestrians on the sidewalk the rest of the way.

Forty-five minutes later, I locked my bike up at the Menlyn Park mall and walked in to “Entrance 7.” There was no giant “Directory” sign like you see in the US, and the information booth was empty. With at least seven entrances, it was going to take me hours to find the Shop Rite. I stopped a young couple and asked where the supermarket was. They pointed over my shoulder.

“Right there!” the guy said, with a laugh.

I smacked my palm to my forehead, said thanks, and headed over to a supermarket called Checker. It wasn’t Shop Rite, but I had picked up bus tickets at Checkers before, so I knew it would be ok.

Twelve glass doors stared at me, spanning the front of the store under the enormous sign. The eleven on the right were closed, and a middle aged lady in an official Checker uniform was ushering a long line of shoppers out of the door on the far left. I walked up.

“The store’s closed,” she said.

No. No! It couldn’t be closed! This was our only way to get the tickets.  I told her I was just picking up tickets, that I had bought them already and just needed five minutes. She said sorry, the store was closed and I’d have to come back tomorrow. I started to launch into my story of the early bus and the supermarkets not being open in time, but she just shook her head and pointed for me to leave.

Disgusted, I knew I had to think fast. I found a security guard and asked where the Shop Rite was. Yzelle and Maj said it was open until 8.

“There’s no Shop Rite here. Only Checker.”

I gritted my teeth, thanked the man, and marched back to the far left door of Checker, determined to talk my way into this or die trying. As an English teacher, I have faith in my ability to talk my way into and out of just about anything. I’m good at persuasive arguments and Socrates’ rhetorical appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos. If ever there was a time to pull out all the stops, this was it.

Once again, I pleaded with her. It would take two minutes, but I HAD to get those tickets. It was of the utmost importance for national security and the stability of the space-time continuum, or something. I don’t really recall what I said, but I do remember that she frowned at me.

“Go quickly,” she said, pointing to her left. “The counter’s over there.”

I ran across forty checkout lines until I arrived at the lotto counter. I asked for my tickets, and slapped my credit card down on the desk.

“Photo ID?” the woman asked.

I stuck my hand into my, well, the side of my underwear, and pulled out the fifty and the ten. No license. No passport.

“I don’t have my photo ID,” I said, letting the sweaty, crumpled bills fall lazily on the counter.

The woman looked at the money. “No photo ID, no ticket.” I died a little inside. I fished around in my mind for what to do. And then I remembered: TIA. A little bribe never hurt anybody. I had heard a story that morning from a guy who had given us a lift to Pretoria that he had gotten stopped by a cop for driving without a license, a serious offense with a penalty of 1,000 rand ($133) among other things. He had slipped seven rand (a buck) out of his pocket, handed it to the cop, and the cop said, “Have a nice day,” got in his squad car, and drove away.

Pushing the money across the counter, I pleaded my case. I could tell her the names and birthdays of both passengers, the route, and the departure and arrival times of the bus, even sign my signature to match it to my credit card, but I HAD to get those tickets.

She considered it for a moment. “I have to ask my supervisor.”

She said something in Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, a mix between Dutch, German, English, and French, and the supervisor turned to me.

“Sir, are you telling me that I have to lose my job just so you can have two bus tickets?”

“No, no,” I said, explaining the situation once again.

“There’s a lot of credit card fraud in this country, sir. I can’t let you do that.”

I pleaded, glancing at the soggy sixty rand still sitting on the counter. It looked less like a good bribe now than when I had pulled it out.

She narrowed her eyes and asked me where I was from. “The USA,” I said.

“I can tell from your accent.”

She proceeded to ask me what I was doing in South Africa, how I liked it, how long I had been here and when I was going home, no doubt checking my story for legitimacy, to see if I had to fish around for details or if I would slip up and not be able to answer the questions. They came a mile a minute, but I stayed cool under pressure and answered every one.  “Travelling, great and beautiful country, about two weeks, and unsure, because heading to Mozambique and Malawi soon.”

She still wasn’t convinced. “I promise you,” I said, “the bus leaves Pretoria at 7:15 tomorrow and arrives in Nelspruit at 12:55 in the afternoon.”

“I’ll have to check that the bus leaves when you say it leaves,” she said.

Finally, a break.

The supervisor typed something into a computer, and saw that, indeed, the bus would leave at 7:15 and arrive at 12:55.

She looked at me. The supervisor looked at me. I looked at the soggy underwear cash on the counter.

She held my credit card up to her face with one hand and handed me a blank slip of paper with the other. “Sign here,” she said.

I did so, my looping, sweeping signature exactly matching what I knew was on the back of my card.

She considered the two, and spouted a long string of Afrikaans to the lady behind the counter, the only word of which I caught was one that sounded like “Forge.”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “You can’t forge that signature.”

The lady smiled. “No, you certainly can’t.  Here are your tickets.”

She printed them out, wished me a nice trip, and like a miracle, we were on our way. Anything was possible now.



Russian Mountain Climbing

If somebody says to you, “Take a hike!”, and you’re not a native English speaker, you might wonder why this person, who only recently seemed on the verge of throttling you, is now hoping that you take in the natural landscapes of the countryside on a walking path.  It would seem that his tone of voice and the intended message do not match.

Indeed, idioms are fantastic pieces of language that don’t translate at all, and can make for some rather humorous situations.  Recently, I learned three Spanish idioms, which I’ll share with you now for your viewing pleasure.

1) “Mom!  She’s taking my hair!” – To take someone’s hair (or, tomar el pelo) is the Spanish way of saying “to make fun of someone.”  Being an elementary school teacher, I hear “he was taking my hair” a lot, and I always have to stifle a laugh.  If you think about it though, “making fun of” doesn’t really make sense either.  Isn’t making fun a good thing?  Shouldn’t we make fun all the time?  These are questions that keep me up at night.

2) “I hope they give you the blood sausage!” – This partially creepy, partially out-of-left-field expression came from a Spanish-dubbed version of Fresh Prince, when Will got mad at Carlton.  I looked it up online, and “Que te den la morcilla!” roughly translates to “I wish you’d drop dead” or “Leave me alone.”  In the late 1800s, it was believed that stray dogs spread disease.  Blood sausage (similar to the Scotch/Irish black pudding), was poisoned and then fed to stray dogs to kill them.  This was before the existence of kennels.  It has a grisly origin, and still remains as a saying, although nowadays, morcilla is a delicacy in many parts of Spain.

3) “Let’s ride the Russian mountain together” – Although this may sound like some weird, kinky expression, the Spanish word montaña rusa (literally, Russian mountain) means “roller coaster.”  So, to ask someone to “ride the Russian mountain” is really a family-friendly invitation to ride a roller coaster together.  Why it’s a Russian mountain, I couldn’t tell you.  I do know, however, that saying its English translation to a girl you picked up at the carnival in the States is likely to get you slapped.

The Umlaut That Ate Manhattan, and Other Stories

Imagine you’re in a board meeting at an advertising firm, trying to decide just how to give your product that extra spark, that extra shine, that extra feeling of being just-ever-so-superior to your competition.  Should you give it some wavy silver lines?  How about a thin, French script font?  Well, more simply, you could just add an umlaut.

Forever the bütt of American jökes, the umlaut is in fact a type of diacritical mark more or less equivalent to the accents on résumé or café.  Strange as accents and umlauts (umlauten?) may seem to English speakers, English is actually the oddball language that doesn’t use many diacritical marks at all, while most other European languages do.  The handful of marks we are accustomed to are used in words like the ones above, foreign words that have been assimilated into English and have now been rendered accent-less, in the forms of “resume” and “cafe.”

English actually does have an umlaut in a fairly common word.  Not one that’s used every day, but one for which there really is no synonym, making its presence in our language strong.  Naïve.  Sure, it can be un-umlauted and seen as “naive,” but that doesn’t clarify the pronunciation, which could then be “nayve” or “nyve.”  And the closest synonym, “ignorant,” while similar, doesn’t mean the same as naïve in every case.

Strangely enough, the word “umlaut” doesn’t contain an umlaut.  Kind of like how “abbreviation” is such a long word.  Personally, I think it would look better if it were spelled “ümläüt.”  Now that is a more fitting name.

And what of that, anyway?  It looks föreign, and that gives it a feeling of süperiority, cläss, fünctiön, some kind of German- or Scandinavian-ness that makes us feel that an ümlauted pröduct is in some way süperior to an ün-ümlauted öne.

Take, for example, Häagen-Dazs ice cream.  Mmm, delicious Scandinavian ice cream made by färmers wearing lëdërhösen, süspënders, and eating only brätwürst.  It cönjures up images of green fiëlds, möuntain streams, and stränge languages.  Türns out, Häagen-Dazs is from the Bronx.  That’s right.  The Bronx.  Home of the New York Yankees, one of the most American symbols in the entire wörld.  Clever marketing ploy, and I bet it fooled you up until this very moment.

What is it about the umlaut that makes it feel more real, more authentic, more… better? It’s that same mysterious je ne sais quoi that attracts us unreasonably to homely women or men with foreign accents, foreign films whose plots and characters would be boring were the story in English, and Björk.

You can’t tell me that Björk, swan dress and all, would be famous if her name was Ruth Stevens.  Likewise, a Finnish-born basketball player enjoyed some fleeting fame in the late-90s with the Utah Utes, and then briefly in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks.  He is none other than the superbly triple-umlauted Hanno Möttölä. His track record (two seasons, 4 points per game) doesn’t suggest fame in the least, but the umlauts, of course, do.

I’ll leave you with a few more examples, changed from their original English to an incorrectly-umlauted version.  Look how mysterious and interesting they sound:

Pönd Scüm.  Dëntal Flöss.  Rööt Canäl.  Adültery.  Äirlïne Fööd.

Tell me that’s not interesting.  I dare you.

Zähne, Zunge, Zahnfleisch

When I saw the words “Zähne, Zunge, Zahnfleisch” printed on a toothpaste tube, I fell in love, and squeezed some out immediately.  How could I not use a toothpaste that claimed it was “Zunge”?

I guess I should explain: I traveled to play in an ultimate frisbee tournament in Punta Umbría, Spain, and was put up in a room with three German guys.  When it was my turn to use the bathroom, I spent easily five or ten minutes just reading all the great words on the labels of their toothpaste tubes.  I’m not sure why German sounds so funny to me, or to all people from the US for that matter, but it does.  And “Zähne, Zunge, Zahnfleisch” was about all I could handle without busting a gut and having my roommates wonder why I was laughing all by myself in the bathroom.

Unfortunately, “Zähne, Zunge, Zahnfleisch” means “teeth, tongue, gums.”  Not exactly a knee-slapper.  But using that information, I would encourage everybody to watch German comedy.  A few years back, I went to a student improvisational comedy show in Tübingen, Germany.  It was just like Whose Line is it Anyway? but in German.  Of course, the actors were gifted with their facial expressions and gestures, not to mention their incredible sense of timing, so the show was hilarious, even though I had zero idea what they were saying.  And to top it all off, all the words sounded funny.

I also learned, this past weekend, about another German game that absolutely knocked my socks off.  Someone had to wash the dishes after dinner, and I suggested we play “rock, paper, scissors” for it.  And in fact, that’s what I said.  “Let’s do rock, paper, scissors for it.”  This, in and of itself, brings up an interesting cultural phenomenon.

In certain areas of the USA, for some reason, rock paper scissors is called “rochambeau,” as in, “Let’s roche for it.”  It does make for a useful abbreviation, so you don’t have to say “let’s rock paper scissors for it,” which is an incredible mouthful.  Other known varieties, as well as strategies for winning every time, are discussed in far more humorous terms than I could ever write myself, by Rick Reilly, who attended the $50,000 Rock, Paper, Scissors World Championship in Toronto.  No, really.

Anyway, when I said, “Let’s do rock, paper, scissors” for it, Stefan, one of my German roommates, screwed up his face in confusion, and then, in a moment of clarity, said, “Oh!  You mean shnick, shnack, shnuck!”

Again, I lost it.  Everything sounds funnier in German.  In fact, I’m sure I could listen to a recording of Ben Stein reading the dictionary in German, and be entertained for days.

As a final note, I’d like to throw in my favorite German word, just for laughs.  Regenbogen.  It’s so much cooler than “rainbow.”