Hearty Welcomes & Salutations! Originally an action-packed travel blog from a globe-trotting Scotsman, An Ache for the Distance has, over the years, slowed down (I post less often), mellowed out (domestic life has found it's way way on here) and become more of an expat/photo blog. Take a look around, leave a comment and share the love if you like something.
Stuart Mathieson, Lübeck, Germany

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Do you spreche my sprache?

The single act of travelling overseas is, for some, a daunting prospect. Organising flights, visas, vaccinations, packing and of course sizing up the possible longevity of your underwear. This however is only the start. What do you actually do when you arrive? If you decide to stay in one country for a longer period, how integrated do you become? It's possible to travel to even the most far-flung and exotic destinations and spend your days largely as if you were unemployed at home but with a splash of extra sunshine, watching movies, surfing the internet and drinking alcohol.

In many cases, it's also possible to lead your life of relaxation in foreign climes and speak only Queen Lizzy's English. In fact, it's also possible to live permanently in a non-English speaking country and get by without learning the local lingo. With English becoming the unofficial lingua franca of international business, travel & communications, does this mean that we of the English tongue don't need to learn other languages?

From a UK perspective, it would be fair to say that most of Her Majesty's subjects don't feel the need to learn the tongue of Johnny Foreigner. A slight irony considering the numbers now being launched onto the continent by the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair. Does this lack of interest therefore come from laziness? Ignorance? Or maybe we genuinely don't need to try as everyone else is learning English through notable language exporters like MTV and McDonalds?

The Germans have a tendency to refer to the British as "inselaffen," or "island monkeys." This isn't only a reference to the behaviour of the pub-dwelling inhabitants but also an insight into the continental view of the British, tucked away on their little island on the edge of the continent. This island mentality may account partly for Britons unwillingness to dabble with words and sentences of a foreign nature and may also explain why English people simply speak louder when a foreigner doesn't understand them. Not a very wise move when you consider some of the complexities, double meanings and idioms employed in English.

Even when the average Englishman has screamed his request, "Would you mind lending me a quid, I'm broke," loud enough so that a dictionary weilding German understands each single word, the man with the Deutsch tongue could be forgiven for mistranslating the word "mind," not finding the word "quid" at all and then finally glancing curiously at the Englishman's body to find out exactly which part is broken.

These language faux pas are, for me at least, the best parts of learning a language. A couple of weeks ago, a student completed an exercise I had given him and read out in front of the class with a completely straight face, "A mechanic is a person who works in a factory and screws on machines." Now, that's not exactly a perfect definition and sadly the student still doesn't know this as I was trying to hard to control my laughter rather than correct him. However my favourite is from a friend who was having dinner with her Spanish boyfriends family and innocently requested "pechuga de polla." The mother, to her credit, simply smiled and said "are you sure you want polla? not pollo?" A quick dictionary inspection later revealed her initial request to be for "breast of cock" (in the penis sense) and not chicken breast as she'd hoped for.

These embarrasing moments aside, English speakers have fantastic potential to learn other European languages. Due to English being a mixed Germanic and Latin language, with a simple a change of pronounciation we can be fluent in Spanglish when in Madrid, Franglais in Paris and Denglish in Berlin. As Eddie Izzard said, we just need to get out there and mix it up a little bit...

Dr Dolittle speaks many tongues

Monday, 13 April 2009

"You Want to See Sahara?" (Part One)

The alarm startles me into a state of semi-consciousness. I focus through bleary eyes just enough to make out a 5, followed by some numbers, before collapsing back onto the bed with frightening velocity. I contemplate hitting the snooze button, reassuring myself that if god had intended me to be awake at this hour then surely he would have switched the sun on. However this is Morocco and the almighty sings from a different hymn sheet, or at least his disciples do. Aided by lofty, Sony surround sound minarets, the mosques wail across Marrakech, calling for the faithful to say morning to Allah. Despite mustering all my psychic powers, I fail to mentally hit the mosques giant snooze button and I’m slowly brought into a state of logical thought. Blessed by this, it dawns on me that I’d set my alarm for a reason and that the minutes are slowly ticking away until the departure of my Sahara bound tour bus.

I reluctantly remove the bed covers and the December chill instantly penetrates my bones. I sheepishly skip over the icy cold tiled floor and into the bathroom where the temperature puts me in mind of a documentary about penguins in Antarctica. It’s with a degree of hope that I turn on the hot water for the shower, knowing full well that despite being assured yesterday of the existence within the premises of this North African luxury, the likelihood of actually steaming up the bathroom mirror is slim. After 5 minutes of waiting for anything other than liquid ice to come through I decide to brave it. I immediately regret the decision. As the first droplets land on exposed skin, I lose control of my vocal cords and every following wave of cold water over my body is accompanied by a small involuntary wail. Vital organs quickly retract as though running in defeat from a far superior enemy and my skin turns milky white as the blood drains away. Just before losing consciousness, I stumble out of the shower and attempt to dry myself with yesterdays still soggy and slightly frozen towel. After achieving a state of dryness somewhere between dripping wet and damp, I throw on as many clothes as possible and reluctantly stuff the towel into the top of my rucksack, knowing full well the exuberant odour which will subsequently fester.

I tip-toe out of my room onto the balcony above the hostel’s inner courtyard and begin a tentative search for both the staircase and a light switch. I quickly give up on the latter and instead make my way down the narrow, pitch black set of stairs. Swiping my foot across every step first for fear of treading on a cat, for I know from experience that Moroccan cats carry the label “domesticated” only loosely. Were I to inadvertently rouse one into a state of anger on a dark staircase, the ensuing battle could only result in feline victory. Progress is slow until a previously unknown 40 watt bulb bursts into life overhead. Through the glare I make out the generously wrinkled proprietor watching me from the bottom of the staircase with a look somewhere between weariness and pity. She lightens me of my room key before ushering me out the door and slamming it behind me with nary a goodbye nor bon voyage. Clearly too early for hospitality.

I shuffle along the narrow alleyway, bordered on both sides by high sandstone walls, and onto one of the medina’s main thoroughfares. Normally the human traffic, food stalls, donkeys, beggars and open throttled scooters make for an assault course style stroll but, at five in the morning, the street is completely deserted. The relative squalor revealed by the streets emptiness is both visually and nasally impressive. I’m left pondering over the thought that only yesterday I was happily gorging on a mammoth sandwich from a street stall which, at the time seemed quite convivial, but now had an overwhelming aroma of cat piss and an abundance of top grade donkey shit. I forge on undeterred and, after a brief but unintended barter with a taxi driver and an offer of “spacey” marijuana from a shady character in a doorway, make it to my bus on time.

Despite the abundance of clothing, I’m still shivering from the cold as I board the bus. It’s with some hesitance but real necessity that I rearrange my scarf and hat to cover most of my face. However the mujahideen look isn’t such a good idea anywhere in the world, let alone a Muslim part, so I opt for some giant aviator sunglasses to give some Western Yin to the Eastern Yang. My fashion balancing act leaving me looking like Taleban in Los Angeles.

The bus is soon out of the city and after half an hour we’re ascending into the Atlas mountains. The landscape steadily changing from a patchwork of fertile fields into a strange Arabic-European alpine hybrid. The trees become more European in appearance and the snow takes away any idea that I’m in North Africa, yet the human marks on the landscape are a stark contrast. Clusters of simple, muddy looking houses, clinging to a mountainside or surrounding the tower of a mosque and any roadside activity near these settlements is normally of the “man & donkey” variety. We stop at a café somewhere high in the mountains and a handful of locals are given the visual spectacle of 16 Europeans shivering to death whilst trying to drink Berber tea. Inside the café, I give an example to Eurocrats in Brussels of how multi-lingual business should really be done by enquiring about the price of biscuits in a mixture of “Franglais,” “Spanglish,” pigeon English and a final splash of Arabic. My Moroccan counterpart in the bargaining process, failing to fully appreciate the linguistic benchmark that we’re setting, refuses to budge from his lofty 6 euro asking price for a packet of biscuits and I board the bus clutching only some dry bread.

We roll on through the mountains and slowly the snow starts to recede. Two hours after the café stop the temperature has climbed to 20C and we’re driving along palm fringed roads with occasional kasbahs offering some architectural style on the landscape. We stop for lunch in Ouarzazate and I remember why I hate doing organised tours when the bus driver gives us a strict two hour limit in town. A mere 120 minutes to find edible food, lose money to the locals and see or experience something noteworthy. It’s a challenge…

From Rockin in Maroc