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Communications Problems

January 6, 2011

A little while ago we bought, from the local supermarket here, a pack of bacon.  It was unsliced but obviously bacon and when we sliced and cooked it, found it to be utterly delicious.  The next pack we bought appeared in every way to be identical but turned out to be desperately salty – almost inedible.  And you must trust me when I say that food has to be pretty bad before I am moved to reject it.  The difficulty stemmed from being unable to read any Greek and therefore we were unaware of the salt content which I assume is there for all to see on the packaging, did we but know it.

Mulling this over, led me to reflect on the various communication and language problems we have had since setting out on our trip.  We have encountered no less than ten different languages since leaving the Menai Straits in July 2009; as well as English and Welsh, there has been Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Majorcan, Italian, French and Greek not to mention a curious hybrid language used by the Gibraltarians.  In many places of course, particularly tourist destinations, the local people speak some English.  But we cannot always rely on this, nor should we.  It seems, at the very least, discourteous to make no effort to speak the local language if staying for any more than a very short visit. 

Now, neither of us would profess to be linguists but we do have some knowledge between us of French, German, and Turkish plus I studied Latin at school many moons ago and Duncan still remembers a few words of Dutch; this has helped to an extent.  I discovered for instance that the tiny man who ran the café/bar/shop at Nazarre in Portugal spoke no English but did speak French and was delighted when he found we could communicate, pointing out his most delicious cheeses, and producing fresh orange juice from the store room when I had searched in vain along the shelves.  In Calafat we found that the Capitane spoke fluent German enabling us to book in, learn how to use the showers and the location of the nearest shop.  However, the poor man was obviously lonely and thrilled to have found someone to chat to, so we moved on from such mundane subjects to conversation regarding the small number of English visitors that had come to the marina that season, the state of the tourist industry in Spain, the Spanish economy in general and finally the global recession.  By this time D & I were struggling as it had become evident that this gentleman’s knowledge of German was a great deal better than ours – which in any case had never been brilliant and now 16 years since leaving Dusseldorf, was more than a little rusty.  We eventually extracted ourselves with difficulty and went and hid for the rest of the evening aboard “Rampage” to avoid further embarrassment. 

Now before we left the UK, knowing that we were going to be spending some time in Spain, my nephew Nick leant me a set of teach-yourself-Spanish cds.  I initially started to work on these, playing them in the car en route to and from work and discovering the crucial importance of where you place the stress on a word and that using the wrong verb “to be” (the Spanish have two) can completely change the sense of whatever you are attempting to say.  However, when I finished working, we were ferociously busy packing and cleaning up the house, preparing Rampage, selling cars, saying goodbye to friends and family and somehow the attempt to learn some Spanish stalled. 

Later when we were sailing in the Spanish Rias, I resurrected the tuition course, now faithfully copied to my ipod.  Passage-making, frankly, can be rather dull, particularly if there is no wind and you have to motor, so, finding myself on watch with not a lot to do, I tried again.  However, learning a language naturally involves speaking aloud and although at first my incomprehensible outbursts amused, they gradually started to irritate Duncan (and probably David, our companion at the time, ‘though he was far too polite to say,) and so I became less inclined to make the effort.  On a 40ft boat there is nowhere much to go to get away from your fellow travellers.

Once we reached Barcelona, we did attend classes but learning Castilian Spanish was made more complicated by the fact that the locals in the market all spoke Catalan, and – more importantly all the fruit and vegetables were labelled in Catalan.  We got by but were never particularly proficient. 

Markets are fun and I love to use them whenever possible.  Usually the stall- holders are helpful and friendly, and communication can be achieved by various means even if you don’t have a common language.  Once in a market in Portugal, I managed to establish that the meat I was proposing to buy was pork, by the simple expedient of doing my best snorting pig impression.  It produced an uproarious response but also resolved the issue.  Now Portuguese – there’s a strange language.  Looks like it stems from Latin with similarities to Spanish, but sounds more like Russian – at least to us ignorant visitors.

When I was a very small girl we lived for a couple of years just outside Paris and on a Saturday morning my father would be despatched to the local market with a shopping list.  He never really mastered speaking much French but he was a charming and resourceful man who could sketch and draw quite well.  Before long, he became a well known figure, as he would appear armed with a small notebook and pencil and carefully sketch a gooseberry, a turnip or whatever my mother required.

So now we are in Greece and likely to be here for some time so once again I am trying to get to grips with a foreign tongue but this time it is even harder, with no links to Latin and – to add insult to injury – a completely different alphabet.  It doesn’t help that with a large English-speaking population, many of the local people speak English, including the lovely young girls on the checkout at the local supermarket.  Also we are both idle and learning new skills undoubtedly becomes more challenging as you get older.  But once again, I have an audio course and I shall persist – at least until I am able to order a meal and do a little shopping without having to resort to my native tongue.  Whether I shall ever succeed in reading the labels on foodstuffs etc is another matter.  Next time I shall probably consult one of the girls on the checkout.

We finished the salty bacon, incidentally, by chopping it up and adding it to the sausage stew which we fed our neighbours, Bern and Alan, last night on their return to Gouvia after 7 weeks in the UK. 

Now, where did I put the spare batteries for my mp3 player …? 

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One comment

  1. Have just enjoyed catching up with your antics over the festive season……excellent reading.Hope to see you in the not too distant future when we return to Curly Sue. Love, Andy & Susan



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