Posts Tagged ‘communication’

I guess it would be good to establish the scene.

I’m sitting in a freezing tent overlooking Rome’s Tiber River.  The time is hovering around 1:00 AM.  It has been a drizzly day, a rainy week, and a boozy binge.  Wine is cheap in Italy, but its quality is not.

I’ve been going at this trip for three months now.  Grazing glaciers, inside ruins, under seas, over seas, through valleys, above mountains, 12,000 kilometers by rail, boat, bus, bike, plane and foot–this is the easy part of my plan.  I never, ever know where I will be two days from the current day.  I usually don’t know what day of the week it is.  Sometimes I’ve had to sleep in a different place every night.  I’ve woken up once and forgotten which country I was in.  People I meet along the way ask me what my plans are, where I’m going, or how long I’m going to do this.  I just don’t know.  There is no hint in my answer as to whether this is a good or bad deal; it is the deal, and I neither mind it nor relish it.  I appreciate the rush of cultures and the chance it provides to meet the world on my own terms.  I regret the missed opportunities to stay and learn more.  I am very fortunate.  I am whittling away mispent youth.  I am happy.  I am happy.

They ask me if I’m traveling alone.  The most common question.  They look at my backpack and ask.  Well, yeah, I am.  Of course.  Except that I’m not.  Physically, yes, but I’m connected with friends old and new, the people I’ve known and the people I’m coming to know.  I’m always missing people.  The pattern: I meet people, get to know them, escalate a friendship, we have fun, maybe some mutual epiphanies or two, then abruptly separate.  This trip is supposed to help me connect with people, and every day, it is.  But I guess I never stopped to think for how long I could be connected.

Then there’s Caligula.  They always ask me about Caligula.  I enthusiastically explain that he’s a 1979 historical pornography.  They invariably knod their heads in silence.   It makes me think I’m the only person who can appreciate Caligula for who he is.



“This place has really gone to shit.”


I stand in front of ruins, or, if I’m lucky enough, in them.  I think about the people who used to stand and walk and talk where I am now, and how much we would have in common.  But that’s just the effect of ruins: by definition they evoke thoughts of the past and a future without us in which everything we’ve ever known will have similarly eroded.  I think about the people I’ve met and I wonder what they’re doing right at that moment.

Like now, my host in Reykjavik.  What’s she doing?  Scuba diving?  She was an instructor.  Or Ewen in Dunoon?  He fucked up his leg.  Probably having sex with sheep.  Taro in dirty Wales?  Could be watching Ewen’s sheep sex via camchat.  Kristina in London?  Reading would be a good guess.  Friends from Amsterdam?  Back to real life.  And the Erasmus students, my God, the students from Brno!  They’re probably just getting really drunk or dancing, but definitely not dying anywhere.  The Japanese friends I met in Prague?  Back in Japan, but doing what?  Karaoke?  And this one other guy who got banned from Europe.  Not any specific country, but Europe.  The whole thing.  How much of a badass do you have to be to get blacklisted from an entire continent?  Apparently, as much of one as he was.  The Slovenian who designed a spaceship powered by bearshit and hosted me for a week?  Moving on to the building phase?  I wonder.  All these things, I wonder while I wander.

It’s freezing in this tent.  I don’t know why I thought this might be a good idea.  The tent, I mean.  I also don’t know why I wrote this out, but then again, I still don’t know where I’ll even be tomorrow.  Taking a cheap train south, but then what?  I’m running out of Europe; only Greece is left.  I have to climb Mt. Olympus in a Kratos costume and topple Zeus before I start to enter the long string of countries I couldn’t even place on a map.  The main part of the trip.  The long part.  Then, finally, at the end where these sorts of things tend to be, is the goal.

And I wonder what will happen then.



The most common first language within the European Union, German is spoken by nearly 100,000,000 people.  Not limited to Germany alone, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and tiny Liechtenstein all feature large contingents of German speakers and varying degrees of official state recognition.  With a hefty alphabet just foreign enough to throw umlauts over three–count ’em–THREE vowels, one can only imagine that they must have simply run out of elbow strength by the time their pen reached the letter ß, thereby saving it to be mispronounced in an entirely different manner.  Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in Germany, the eighth country on my trip around the world.

1. Hello.     “Hallo.”     [HAH-loh]

Dutch, German, English–all the same, save for a few scrambled letters.

2. Yes/No.     “Ja/Nein.”     [yah/nine]

Very similar to Dutch, nein?

3. Do you speak English?     “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”     [SRAHK-en zee ANG-lish?]

It works more often than you’d expect.

4. Where is…?     “Wo ist…?”     [voh ist…?]

Now wait a minute–this is just a poor man’s Dutch!

5. How much?     “Wie viel kostet das?”     [vee feel KOS-tet das?]

Uncanny, once again.

6. That tastes good!     “Das schmeckt gut!”     [dahs schmekt goot!]

German food is meaty; vegetarians need not learn this phrase.

7. Thank you.     “Danke.”     [DAHN-kuh]

You’ve just been helped and/or fed. Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized. If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, give one to your new friend.

Notable customs:

  • Germans often tip by rounding up the bill, but rarely bill by rounding off the tip.
  • Don’t drink until a toast has been said, and stay away from Heineken, because PABST BLUE RIBBON!

 “Heineken?  Fuck that shit!  PABST BLUE RIBBON.”

Honorable mentions:

Bless you!     “Gesundheit!”     [geh-soond-hait!]

“A cataclysmic downfall or momentous, apocalpytic event!”   “Götterdämmerung!”   [goy-te-deh-me-rung!]

Happy Hanakah!      “Glücklicher Hanukkah!”      [GLOOK-leesh-er hah-na-kah!]

Back when I first arrived in Japan three-and-a-half years ago, I was deeply in lust.  The cashier at my local McDonald’s (the one just past the rice fields) caught my eye and I wrote a power ballad on a series of napkins, lamenting the unattainable.  Although I later learned that she may have been, in fact, a teenager, that didn’t alter the fundamental dynamics of our relationship.  I associated McPork sandwiches with pleasure and those who handled my McPork sandwiches with all the trappings of a common streetwalker.  Pleasure was provided at a cost–120 yen for two buns–and I could scarcely hide the euphoria of interaction from my young students, who brought our relationship to a climax by confronting both of us at the counter: “Joshu, is she your type?”

“O damnation, children; it is not for you to bring into the light that which survives only when nurtured in the darkest recesses of our subconscious.”  Ours was the bread mold of love.

McDonald’s Girl, although your smile eventually faded as more stable and long-term relationships truly impacted more than my colon alone, one of whom is at the very heart of my trip around the world, I want to thank you for briefly making me feel like a schoolboy. I’ve thought about you and the fascinating 1:1 correspondence between food and romance.  I fear you would not recognize me anymore.  I’m much more confident.  I also hate your former employer.  And I don’t even really eat beef so much now.  But thanks to you, I once was lovin’ it.


Like this, except with more lotion.


To all the unrequited lovers out there, supersize your hearts and hear my sad story:


Ode to the McDonald’s Girl

Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

The way

You tilt your head

Your eyes light up

You stare at me

–And giggle!–

When I try to order every night, stammering

“Uhh, yes, good evening…I…umm…hmm…well…I want…”

But you

Just cut me off now,

Already knowing my order full well.

I pay you, briefly touching

And out from the fryer come

Two hot McPork sandwiches

My favorite.

Oh, you know me too well!

Just not Biblically,

But, oh,

How I would love to see you smile.



Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

I have been

So patient

Waiting in line for you

Behind all these other suitors.

How I

Would love for you to say,

“Welcome. Can I take your order?”

But until then

I wait,


When will you let me

Have you to go?

Super-size our love?

Get free refills?

I want to do


I’m lovin’ it.



Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

Why do you even ask?

You know

The only combo I want is




And maybe

Your sister

Space permitting.

But please,

Hold the pickles.

Especially mine.



Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

Your food, it is

So bad

Yet it tastes

So good.

I wonder–

Is it cooked

With love?

Or is it

Something else–

Hydrogenated bean oil,


But now there is no time,

Not to think

Not to muse

Not to ogle

Because my sandwiches

Are done,



That’s the fastest

That’s ever happened,

I swear.



Oh, McDonald’s Girl!

I have to know:

Am I your only regular customer?

I sit at the booth and

I think about

The things I would do to you

If I knew your name

If I knew you consented

If I knew you were legal


Until I know your language,

I will never know you,


Or otherwise.





The stereotype that the French cannot speak English is only as true as the anglophones’ inability to speak passable French.  Offended for a millennium by butchered accents and the bewildering pronunciation of silent letters [protip: every letter in the French alphabet is silent], it’s no surprise that the most common lingua franca of France and England for the past 1000 years has been war.  France is the first country on my trip around the world with a relatively low proportion of English-speakers, and from this point on, I’ll be needing to rely on the local lingo to communicate effectively.   Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in France, the fifth country on my trip around the world.


1. Hello/Hi.     “Bonjour/Salut.”     [bon-zhoor/sa-lew.]

Be sure to greet a sales clerk upon entering a store (see Notable Customs).

2. Yes/No.     “Oui/Non.”     [wee/non.]

The subject of countless jokes during my more younger and more vulnerable years, an enthusiastic “oui oui” is still good for a laugh.

3. Do you speak English?     “Parlez-vous anglais?”     [par-ley-voo ong-gley?]

Try it.  Don’t be ashamed.  At least begin the conversation with this softball to lessen the blow on the Frenchman’s ears.

4. Where is…?     “Où est…?”     [oo es…?]

Ever-useful for directing oneself on the streets.

5. How much?    “C’est combien?”     [sey com-byun?]

Ask for the prices of food before ordering food, if possible.

6. Delcious!    Délicieux!”     [day-lee-shee-uh!]

If you’re eating French food, you might be pulling this one out a lot.

7. Thank you.    “Merci.”     [mair-see.]

You’ve just been helped and/or fed. Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized. If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, offer one to your new friend.


Notable customs:

  • When entering a store in France, it’s customary to greet the owner or attendant.  Many stores are considered a private space, so think of it as entering into someone’s home–a casual “Bonjour” to the sales clerk will likely score you a Good Citizenship Award, redeemable for one free Sizzling Entree at all participating Applebee’s restaurants. 


You are a paragon of compassion and stand as a beacon of humanity.  Enjoy your skillet fajitas.


Honorable mentions:

Where can I find gay nightclubs?      “Où son les boîtes gaies?”     [oo son ley bwat gey?]

Could you prepare a meal without cheese?     “Pouvez-vous préparer un repas sans fromage?”     [poo-vey-voo prey-pa-rey un re-pa son froh-mahzh?]


While Scotland is nominally an English-speaking country, it will occasionally feel more appropriate to make mental quotefingers and think of this northern half of the British Isles as an “English-speaking” region.  Fresh–and drunk–upon my arrival in Glasgow from Reykjavik, I had an exchange with an employee in a traditional Irish pub that initially left me scrambling to reply in Icelandic.  When I realized she was simply speaking English with a strong regional accent, I knew that I’d need some help with the local lingo.   Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in Scotland, the second country on my trip around the world.

Don’t be this guy.  Keep reading.  

1.  Hello/ Hi.     “Hallo [incorrect: Lali-ho]/Awrite.”

Many Scots have a good sense of humor, so don’t fret a casual greeting.

2.  Yes/No.     “Aye/Nae.”

Alternatively, just nod your head. 

3.  Do you speak English?     “Dae ye speak Anglish?”

If you’re angling for a fight, the fish will nibble this hook.

4.  Where is…?     “Whaur is…?”

Example:  “Whaur is ma Pabst Blue Ribbon?”

5.  How much?     “Hau much?”

Example:  “Hau much is ma Pabst Blue Ribbon?”

6.  Delcious!     “A pure like it!”

I’ve never heard this personally, but “pure” looks to be a slang adverb of degree.

7.  Thank you.     “Thenk ye.”

You’ve just been helped and/or fed.  Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized.  If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, give one to your new friend.

Notable customs:

  • Kilts, often associated with Scotland, originated in the wool designs worn by Highlanders in the 16th century.   This is in no way to be confused with the leather jacket of Duncan MacLeod, the Highlander, an Immortal possessing a healing factor and fluency in several extinct languages who, after being born in 1592, later starred in a popular 1990s television live-action drama.

He also had the ability to impregnate with his gaze.

Hono[u]rable mentions:

I need to practice my Scottish.   “A need tae practice ma Scottish.”

I don’t understand.   “A dinna kin.”

Whenever I’ve visited a new country, I’ve known that learning tangible bits of the local language can carry me a long way toward a lasting (b)romance.  Speaking to locals in their own language, no matter how piecemeal the vocabulary, is always a memorable stumble down Humble Lane.   Knowing the foundation of the local writing system can also be an immeasurable aid to a budget traveler, since often enough, menus and street signs are written in only the mother tongue.  To be fair, for the most part, you could conceivably get by on only English.  However, you’ll be functionally illiterate, and you might start to have pangs of an Imperial jingoist spreading the Queen’s.  Language learning is just something I like to do; I’m not good at it, but I make it a point to show that I’m at least trying to fit in.  This trip around the world will be no exception, despite the large number of borders crossed.


This is me fitting in on top of Japan’s Mt. Fuji.  Look closely; I’m the one in the middle.

With that said, a compromise is needed.  On a trip like this, where boundaries are crossed in a rapid succession, there’s no way to absorb and establish a language before leaving the country and tagging out to a new language set, all in a matter of days.  So, I’ve decided to reduce each language to seven key phrases and words, expressing basic communicative ideas universal to all languages.  I’ve skipped the cover-all “I don’t speak Language X,” since I wouldn’t be able to fool anyone in the first case, so why try to pull the wool over their eyes?  Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in Iceland, my first stop around the world, although with the high level of domestic English ability, saying most of these amounts to a mere international good-will gesture.


1.  Hello/ Hi.     “Halló/Hæ.”

Simple meet-and-greet territory.  Increasingly casual.

2.  Yes/No.     “Já/Nei.”

“No” is the one-stop go-to reply to anything that any local asks you ever when you didn’t understand the question in the first place.  This will also establish that you are not one to be trifled with.

3.  Do you speak English?     “Talarðu ensku?”

The ultimate conversation cop-out.  NOTE:  Invariably, you must compliment your partner on their English ability if its presence becomes known.  The linguistic equivalent of formal surrender, if you’re simply not making any progress, this Cheshire-grinning caged monster is always in the back of your mind, urging you to open the lock “and let me help.”

4.  Where is…?     “Hvar er…?”

For asking directions when hopelessly lost.  You probably won’t understand the reply–don’t feel too bad.  The pertinent information is in the body gestures, pointing, and wild gesticulation.

5.  How much?     “Hvað kostar þetta?”

Shopping and reading menus, two sitcom plots you are likely to find yourself in repeatedly.

6.  Delcious!     “Ljúffeng!”

It’s both courteous and tasteful to show appreciation to your cook or waiter.

7.  Thank you.     “Takk.”

You’ve just been helped and/or fed.  Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized.  If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, give one to your new friend.

Notable customs:

  • If you were a level-headed Icelander in a dispute in the Middle Ages, you might consider cordially inviting the other party to “walk on a small island,” or “hólmganga.”  Standing on a 3 meter square ox hide, you’d first mark the area with hazel staves, sacrifice a bull, and then carefully dodge blows using a maximum of three shields in one of the world’s first turn-based battle systems, thus predating JRPGs by a millenium.  Rather than ending in death, these duels ended in first blood, a cue lost on the Rambo franchise: it was one of the most humane dueling systems around.
  • When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake can be offered.  Refusing is grounds for hólmganga.
  • Due to the high cost of alcohol in Icelandic bars, it is common for Icelanders to stay at home drinking until late at night before stumbling outdoors for a protracted bar crawl.  While the prices of the spirits for sale in Keflavik International Airport’s Duty Free may make your head spin better than anything inside the bottle, this is one of the rare cases in which buying duty-free is actually significantly cheaper than waiting to buy in town.


Honorable mentions:

I am a tomboy.   “Ég er strákastelpa.”