Lanugage Traps for Foreigners

31 05 2011

Language and culture can be tricky, and there are a lot of unhealthy traps that a foreigner can tumble into without even trying. The Swiss friends with whom we are currently traveling in the United States have gotten a massive dose of both in the past couple of weeks.

Heading off into uncharted linguistic territory.

They have been pretty good sports about it all, even if, as is sometimes the case, the joke happens to be on them. And even if most of the information goes in one ear and out the other because it will be useless to them when they get home in 6 days.

In my previous post, I mentioned my role as the color commentator as we pass landmarks, cruise through national parks and drive down Main Streets of small towns along our way. And some of the stuff we have been talking about really does merit a blog post.

Cultural connotations can be difficult to understand in the language of origin, and most are more or less gibberish in some other language that doesn’t have the words for it. Here is a short list of a few things I have recently tried to explain… I have listed them in the order of least difficult to most difficult to describe in a foreign language.

See how many of these you can do in a language that is not your own, and let me know your foreign friends’ comprehension and/or reactions:

  • Why are there little red flags on the sides of American mailboxes?
  • 100 miles does not equal 100 kilometers, and 100 degrees Centigrade does not equal 100 degrees Fahrenheit (but that 100 degrees F is still hot enough….)
  • The difference between “hash browns” and “hash brownies”.
  • How drivers at an intersection with a four-way stop sign organize themselves so that chaos does not ensue in the middle of said intersection.
  • What are trailer parks, and how do you identify their human declination, “trailer park trash”?
  • The micro- and macro- economic benefits of 24-hour shopping. (And the fun of a 3 a.m. soccer game in Aisle 6 of your local supermarket using a can of tuna instead of a ball.)
  • Why it’s completely appropriate to dance with some guy to live music in some stinky bar in some little town in the middle of nowhere out west and then later ask to borrow his cowboy hat for a photo opportunity. (Prerequisite: alcohol.)

And here is one I haven’t even attempted on my Swiss friends yet, but know from past experience with other Germanic peoples that it’s pretty much impossible:

  • Major League Baseball.

    Does not exist in Europe.

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On the road again

23 05 2011

So did the world end last Saturday? I have been so out of touch I wouldn’t have noticed. But somehow it seems like the same place it was prior to May 21st, 2011 – the date all those religious conspiracy-theroist wingnuts, who misused every medium in the country, tried to convince us that The Rapture was upon us.

Looks like Judgement Day came and went, huh?

But that’s kinda why it’s taken me so long to update my blog… I didn’t want to do all the work, you know, for nothing. Just wanted to wait and see if we would still be around after last Saturday.

(And we are! Great!)

I’ve been traveling with my husband and some friends, and have not had time to unpack my computer, let alone look at email or check up on current events since about 10 days ago. I have gone totally radio silent on Facebook. My FB friends are probably wondering if I drove into a ditch or something. Withdrawl has been brutal.

I don’t even know what day of the week it is. (Thursday?)

We have been on a whirlwind tour of the southwest USA, doing things like…this:

Early morning hiking in Grand Canyon. (May 22, 2011)

Our friends – two lovely Swiss folks who have been to the United States only twice before – are thankful guests, and the ultimate tourguide R. has been showing them everything this great part of the world has to offer.

My own role as the sidekick has been to provide the color commentary, filling them in with useful (and useless) USA-flavored information, mostly comprehensible translations of common Americanisms and vignettes from my own childhood in small-town America.

They often greet my explanations with blank, puzzled looks. There is clearly a clash of cultures going on here.

And fun as it has been, I have noticed that I am stressing out quite a bit about not getting enough alone-time. Prior to our roadtrip I spent 2½ months in my own little Evelynn-Starr world, doing all sorts of Evelynn-Starr things whenever and however Evelynn Starr felt like doing them. And now I have to share my time and my space with three other people. It’s been a rather rough re-entry into social life.

Complicating things is that our travel companions are somewhat novice. Imagine innocent camera-toting tourists underway in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language or understand the humor. I need not say more – you’ve all seen them, you know what I am talking about.

So I have decided to take a break from group activities, just for a few hours, to recover a bit of sanity. At this moment, I am sitting on the 18th floor of the Aquarius Casino and Resort in Laughlin, Nevada (also known as “Little Las Vegas”). I just won 50 bucks at a blackjack table downstairs and retreated to my hotel room in order to take some time to stare out the window at the Colorado River and think.

Just call me the Lone Rangerette.





Keys to a great Roadtrip

14 05 2011

As R. and I prepare for our next legendary roadtrip through the western USA, I have been thinking about the couple of things that turn a good roadtrip into a great roadtrip.

Last time we were underway, in September 2010, we covered more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers). We did a loop in the northwest, starting in San Francisco and going all the way out to Yellowstone National Park and back, with a bunch of stops in between. If we would have driven straight, we would have covered the ground between San Francisco and Boston. A cross-country trip in a circle, so to speak.

This time we are keeping south, with visits to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park and much, much more. Thanks to R.’s meticulous organziation skills, we have hotel reservations in every scheduled overnight stop, and our route has been planned down to the timing of our pit stops.

A favorite place of mine: Bryce Canyon.

So here are my personal top five ingredients for a great roadtrip:

1) A decent car, preferably something large like a van or an SUV – It is a gas-guzzler (20 mpg on a good day) but the driving comfort and sitting high up above the street is really priceless. And I can handle the bad conscience of driving one of these behemoths of the road when I’m on vacation because at home I am very conscious of my carbon footprint and I drive a smart.

2) The Rand McNally Road Atlas – SO much to see and learn on every page. Just following one’s progress on the map reveals so much about the country, its treasures and of course its size. There is a lot of beautiful ground to cover out there.

3) Satellite Radio – This is the absolute truth: Nowhere in the world are the radio stations as good as they are in the United States. In every city and every region you will find radio for every taste, political persuasion and mood. But the absolute key to great entertainment underway is satellite radio. Top three Sirius XM stations in my book: “70’s on 7”, “80’s on 8”, “The Bridge” on channel 32 and “Margaritaville” on channel 24.

4) Spectacular scenery – Of course, no roadtrip is worth going on if there is nothing to see. And, like the radio stations, no country offers more geographical and scenic variety (and beauty) than this great land of ours. Trust me on this one. (And then take another look at that photo above.)

5) Compatible roadtrip partner(s) – So that the quibbles about the temperature inside the car, the music and whether or not you are on the correct road or making a seven-hour detour won’t turn into World War 3. The last thing you want is for a roadtrip to turn into mutual road rage, especially when you have a whole bunch of miles to go together.





My new love Fred

11 05 2011

I have fallen in love, once again.

Yes, I think R. will tolerate this new love, if grudgingly. The object of my desire is just under two feet tall, weighs 40 pounds and is covered with shaggy black fur. He is seven years old and in order to protect his identity, I will call him Fred.

Fred: "Woof!"

Fred is a Portuguese Water Dog, and a distant older relative of the nation’s First Dog, Bo, who moved into the White House two years ago. And if you do the math: Fred was already around for a while before Bo and his kin became popular. Before the world had actually ever heard of the Portuguese Water Dog and that there even was such a thing.

Fred is the only dog in the world I have ever met who cozies up to an oversized yellow Sponge Bob cuddly toy. It’s the cutest thing you have ever seen.

I met my new true love in Connecticut, in the home of very old friends. They invited me to stay with them after I had spent two tense and sleepless nights at another friend’s house, desperately dodging two big, sinister orange cats, the air thick with their omnipresent dander. When I left, I had to pick cat hair off every piece of clothing that I had taken into their home. It was… distressing. Mainly because I am very allergic to cats.

Somewhere here on my blog I mentioned that I am a dog-person (married to a cat-person). And even if I was not allergic, I find dogs just so much friendlier, more accommodating, more loyal, more playful and simply more reliable than cats.

And according to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the year of the dog so I share many of those (ahem, exceedingly positive) characteristics.

The Chinese probably had a really good reason or two not to have a year of the cat in their zodiac. Cats are infuriatingly aloof and mean, and so much less useful to society than, say, dogs, dragons, snakes, sheep, roosters and rabbits.

I just know that all you cat-lovers out there will tear me to shreds for this, with those vicious little claws of yours. Fine – bring it on. I will take a slobbering, juvenile-minded canine over a hissing, oh-so-sophisticated feline any day.

My love for Fred was sealed on the final day of my visit in Connecticut. We attended a sporting event about 90 minutes away by car. Of course there was no question about whether or not Fred would be part of the festivities. On the way home, after suffering through a miserably cold, wet and muddy day, we had a car full of people, and Fred, always the boss, was not going to be relegated to the trunk of the stationwagon.

I became his Sponge Bob as he climbed onto my lap in the front seat and nestled his head into the door’s armrest. There he slept, the whole hour and a half till we got home. 40 pounds of warm, snoozing, snoring dog, on my muddied jeans, through a wicked rainstorm down the highway as the day turned to dusk. I stretched the seat belt around him. When we pulled into his neighborhood, he instinctively knew he was close to home. He sat up, looked out the window and wagged his tail.

In thanks for the favor, I got a wet, sticky doggie kiss. And my heart was his.





A fun travel-related spectator sport

6 05 2011

In an earlier post I complained about the misery of domestic air travel in the United States. Another chapter has been added to my book of grievances this week… an airline that will remain unnamed neglected to load my suitcase in Dallas as I made my way cross country, east to west. I had exactly 7 minutes to make the connection due to a late incoming flight and my suitcase, alas, didn’t get the message.

But there are a couple of things I do like about travelling across this vast and diverse land.

My favorite place & photo of all time: the Grand Canyon at sunset (May 2007).

Aside from gawking at the spectacular and ever-changing scenery (see above), I like to engage in a truly distinctive but not really widespread or well-known sport.

We are all familiar with planespotters, right? They are those weirdos (usually male) with telephoto lenses who stand at the airport perimeter fence, rain or shine, noses to the chain-link and ears to their radio receivers. When the plane paparazzi spot an aircraft they have never seen before, a cheer goes up and the cameras get to work. You would think Penelope Cruz had just landed from Mars.

Well my favorite activity is a variation on this theme. (No, it’s not imagining that George Clooney just dropped in.) It is the unique and exclusively geeky spectator sport of “airport spotting.”

Flying is such a way of life in this country that there is bound to be an airfield of some sort framed by my oval jetliner window, at any given time while I am airborne. (Pilots here have no idea how lucky they are to have all these places to go.) And my challenge – the sport – is to find it.

Not far from every megalopolis is, of course, a commercial airport or two. That one’s easy to find, it usually has numerous terminal buildings and multiple parallel runways. If you’re lucky there’s even a crosswind runway, for good measure, making the tarmac footprint look like a giant “Z”.

Amongst the baseball diamonds, elaborate cloverleaf intersections, reservoirs and neighborhoods of suburbia, there is also always a landing strip or two to be seen somewhere. Usually it’s between a golf course and a highway.

Even a forlorn, lost little town in the middle of the desert in West Texas will, somewhere near its periphery, have at least one runway.

And sometimes there is just an airstrip, and no town. These are the fun ones to try and spot. You wonder, who even goes there – and why? Bonus points if you can actually read the numbers on the asphalt.

Look! An aistrip in the middle of nowhere!

So think about this the next time you have a clear view out an airplane window at cruising altitude. It gives you a rare and wonderful new perspective on earth and makes the time pass more quickly.

One day, I want to pilot my way across the country in a single-engine airplane, visiting a few of these many, many small and friendly places that, from my current vantage point in seat 14A at 36,000 feet, remain anonymous, unidentified. But when planning to fly myself from coast to coast, I look forward to discovering their names and their personalities, and what makes each and every one of them special.