The boy in the tower

Do you see the lengths I go to for you people? Today, I climbed up to a little dot up in the clouds, at the top of a series of very large hills. The dot would turn out to be the Lookout Tower, from which, I had been informed by Nice Hostel Man, I would be able to see for miles and miles and miles…

That climb put the Eiffel Tower and the crazy Lyon steps to shame, I’m telling you. There weren’t even any steps for most of it – just dusty, rocky old paths with dodgy looking wooden rails to hang on to and (in my case) haul yourself up, gasping for breath. The higher you get, the warmer the air becomes – fortunately today was cloudy, for if it’d been as hot as the past few days have been, I quite simply would not have survived.

Anyway, here it is: a photo of my current surroundings, as promised.

I’ve been staying right down at the water’s edge, in a tiny little village. The Portrush of Hungary, if you will – it’s where all the Hungarians go for their summer holiday or weekend break. It is beautiful. I’m nicely rested and relaxed now, apart from the hill-climbing nightmare. And I even made a new friend!

This is Jeosef, who kindly accompanied me up the tower, chattering away in Hungarian and completely unphased by my English responses. It is much easier to communicate with a child than with an adult when there’s a total language barrier, because they don’t give up and go silent when they realise that you don’t have a single shared word in your vocabulary. Jeosef and I developed our own sign language and did the age-old “saying words in your own language very slowly and loudly as if that’ll help” thing. It worked fairly well. He taught me to say Hayley nak hívnak, and I taught him to say my name is Jeosef. An educational trip, as well as a scenic one!

I have a feeling that he and his father actually live in the Lookout Tower. His dad was a scruffy, slightly wild-looking guy, wearing clothes with holes in them and curled up on a pile of old sacks when I arrived. He supervised as Jeosef excitedly counted my entrance money and attempted to give me the right change, and seemed quite content to let the boy go leaping up the tower steps ahead of me as if he’d done so a million times before. I got the impression that father and son are allowed to shelter in the tower in exchange for collecting the small entrance fee from visitors – because let’s face it, that would be quite a hike to work every day.

Nice as the view is, you’d have to pay me an absolute fortune.

Big wheels keep on turnin’…

Oi! Someone prodded me and woke me from my dream about a comfortable bed and a shower that didn’t have clumps of hair in the drain. This is the last stop!

Drowsily, I uncurled from the foetal position in the back of the van where I’d been sleeping for the last hour, and slid out of the door on autopilot in a most undignified manner. The hostel’s shuttle driver looked at me in amusement as he reached me my bag and took a leisurely puff of his cigarette. Do you need directions, or do you know Amsterdam? he asked kindly, watching me attempt to adjust to being upright. I looked around at the masses of tourists and clouds of marijuana smoke. I know Amsterdam, I replied gloomily. With a thank you and a goodbye, I left the excellent Flying Pig experience behind and let the crazed Amsterdam crowd suck me in and push me along. I was very nearly run over by a tram, which didn’t help my already less than favourable feelings towards the city, especially as the driver watched me pausing and checking him out to gauge whether he was stopped for a while or ready to go, and then launched forward with an evil grin as soon as I was in his path, getting my bag’s wheels stuck in the track as I tried to leap out of his way.

I grumpily lit a cigarette outside the train station, and was immediately and predictably accosted by a homeless guy. I reached him my cigarette before he could even begin his story, and lit another for myself. He was very keen to talk, and I was impressed by how polite I managed to force myself to be, despite the gloom, the rain, the noisy construction work all around, and the depressing crowds of ignorant, drunk and stoned tourists all around me. Halfway through the cigarette, he began his appeal, complete with background story and request for money for a hostel (and not, of course, for drink or drugs). I used to be a sucker for this sort of thing, and gave to every beggar I passed on the streets, until a woman at St. George’s Cross tube station in Glasgow called me all the names under the sun one day because I didn’t have any change – despite the fact that I’d given her 50p every day that I saw her for about 4 months.

I’m sorry, I explained to Amsterdam homeless man, I’m travelling around, and I’m broke. I don’t earn a lot of money, so I don’t really have any to spare. Just the cigarette! I’m sorry. His demeanor changed, and he scowled at me. His next sentence was in Dutch, and probably not very nice. And then he walked off in a rage – but not before he spat at me. Spat at me! And still holding my cigarette in his hand! I resisted the urge to swear loudly after him, and instead stubbed out my cigarette and marched very determinedly to the ticket desk.

Utrecht, please, I said to the bored looking guy behind the desk. One way or return? he asked. I smiled.

One way, I said firmly.

The Ignorant Foreigner

The ticket inspector glares at me over the top of my perfectly valid ticket.

You did not stamp it! he says in the tone of voice that a primary school teacher would use upon discovering a small child eating a purple crayon. He is perfectly correct. I have not stamped my ticket.

I’m sorry, I say in a sweet little voice, I didn’t know I had to stamp it. I did know, in actual fact, but I had no idea how to do it, being as I couldn’t find a machine on which to do so, and didn’t want to miss the train by running all over the place looking for one only to discover that I couldn’t work out how to use it anyway. I feel it’s easier just to plead ignorance than to explain this. He is not mollified in the slightest. I must now charge you for a new ticket, he informs me. I shake my head. Erm, no… I have just bought this ticket. It is valid. I didn’t know I had to stamp it!

The instructions are right there on the back! he retorts excitedly, waving it at me. I glance at it.

Well, yes, I agree amiably, but I can’t read Dutch.

His glare becomes even more glarey. You are in The Netherlands! he points out, rather unnecessarily, given that I am on a train and in possession of a ticket that says Rotterdam – Amsterdam. I stare uncertainly at him. Yes… I explain patiently, I know that. But I’m travelling all over the place… I can hardly learn the language of every single country I pass through.

This does not go down very well. Ticket inspector man stamps my ticket and retains possession of it, looking haughty. Have you tried to learn any languages in the countries you have visited? he asks, as if getting my ticket back depends upon my answer to the question. I stare indignantly at him. Yes! I exclaim defensively. I speak some French… and I’ve tried to pick up a few basic Dutch words… and I started learning Estonian when I was there!

Were I a less gullible person, perhaps I would notice a twinkle in his eyes at this point and deduce that he is winding me up. Alas! I am incapable of reaching such a conclusion without a subtle indication, like Zed standing by my side, nudging me and hissing He’s keeping you going! under her breath.

He waves the ticket in front of my nose and says sternly What can you say in Estonian?

I search the dusty, closed file labelled Random Estonian Phrases at the back of my mind, and pull out the first familiar one. Ma ei räägi eesti keelt, I declare confidently. I regret it the second that he says suspiciously What does that mean?

Embarrassed, I hang my head. I want to tell him it’s some sort of clever insult about arrogant Dutch ticket inspectors, but I don’t have the nerve. I don’t speak Estonian, I reply, ashamed.

Ticket inspector starts to laugh, and hands me back my ticket.

Coffee Break

“Did you know there are bees under the lawn?” I ask anxiously as I have a cup of coffee with Keanu Reeves. He has come round to do the gardening again, and I feel that he is an appropriate person with whom to share my recent fears about the current bee invasion in Leopoldsburg.

“Biz?” he asks uncertainly. “I do not know this ‘biz’ you say.”

Keanu does not speak very much English.

“You know, bees,” I explain, as if putting emphasis on the word will make up for its absence in his vocabularly. “Bzzzzzzz!” I continue helpfully, making fluttering gestures with my hands. “Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!”

The gardener looks disturbed and slightly nervous at my best bee impression. I am a little put out. Never one to have the sense to quit while I’m ahead, I draw a bee on the back of the scribbled notes I have been making for some work that I’m doing. “Bee!” I say determinedly, tapping the page. “Bzzzzzz!”

Understanding dawns on Keanu’s face. “Ah!” he says happily, “Bee!”

“What is it in Dutch?” I ask, always keen to add to my already slightly ridiculous mental store of words in foreign languages.

He looks blankly at me. “How do you say ‘bee’?” I ask slowly, pointing unnecessarily at him and then at my excellent bee doodle.

“Bee,” he repeats.

“Yes,” I agree, beginning to regret ever mentioning this, “yes, ‘bee’. But what is the Dutch word for ‘bee’?”

“Bee,” he insists. I give up, smile encouragingly, and make a remark about the weather to indicate that we are through with the whole bee discussion.

Out of curiosity, I’ve just looked it up. The Dutch word for bee is ‘bij’. Pronounced ‘bee’.

Good Food and Feeling Foreign

Food in Belgium is Good. That’s Good with a capital G.

I arrived in Brussels on Saturday afternoon after a long train journey, during which I was forced to share a carriage with a couple of teenagers who were eating the most delicious-smelling chips that ever existed, and a girl who was enjoying a waffle that dripped with syrup. It blinded me to everything else. The sights, the sounds, the buzz, the crowds, the great weather, the buskers… no, the only thought in my head was lunch. I stopped at a little wall hatch that sold Belgian Frites, and ordered what we Irish would call a poke o’ chips. I don’t know what they call it over here. I settled for saying “frites” and holding up one finger.

I was not disappointed. These chips were the nicest I have ever tasted (with the possible exception of the ones I had for lunch in a cool little restaurant on my first day in Tallinn, which fell into the category of Food that is impossible to eat without going ‘Mmmmmm’ with every single bite).

Then I had a waffle, as advised by Croquecamille. It was like taking a little trip to Food Heaven. Everywhere, everywhere, were the waffle carts and frites stands. Weaving my way through the crowds, I saw people sharing frites, eating Belgian chocolates, and tucking into waffles that were heaped with strawberries and cream, chocolate sauce, and various other delights.

It all looked incredibly appetising – until, that is, I followed the signs to Bruxelles-Midi station to catch a train home. I’d been amused at my guidebook’s description of the area surrounding this station. Do not, under any circumstances, go there alone at night! it warned in ominous bold print. Use one of the other stations if you can. Be on your guard. Don’t carry a handbag, and if you do, be prepared to wallop somebody over the head with it if you want to have any chance of keeping it (it didn’t actually say that last bit, obviously, but you get the idea). They were going a bit over the top, I felt.

The scent of frites and waffles gradually disappeared and was replaced with – strangely – the sickly sweet aroma of incense. Swanky restaurants with pretty pavement terraces became grubby street cafes selling scary-looking concoctions (most involving unidentifiable chunks of meat). Names of shops and posters on walls were no longer in French or Dutch, but in a Middle Eastern language of some sort, with unfamiliar symbols as letters. Youths skulked in doorways, smoking fragrant cigarettes, and I realised somewhat nervously that I was the only female in sight who was not wearing a head covering. People were watching me suspiciously. I had to swerve to avoid a brawl that spontaneously errupted on the pavement in front of me.

Choking on the clouds of incense, I entered the station. It was the first time that I’ve ever seen signs in French and heard it being spoken all around me that I actually felt comforted and in familiar surroundings. I don’t think I’m quite ready for non-European travels just yet, you know. In fact, I was very pleased with myself on the way home, when I started to get a horrible, uneasy feeling that I was once again on the wrong train. Do you speak English? I asked the woman next to me. She shook her head, saying something in Dutch, and I slumped back in momentary defeat. Francais? she asked. Oui, un peu, I said, brightening. I explained my train worries, and we had a very basic but helpful conversation. This is something that has really impressed me on my travels – seeing people meet and establish a common second language before easily entering into conversation. And now I’ve done it, too!

I was slightly less calm and confident after a long and complicated train announcement about an hour later, when the train was stopped at a station. Everyone stood up and began speaking in urgent tones, grabbing bags. Some left the train, others sat back down. I sat in the middle of it all, wondering what was going on and feeling increasingly nervous about where I was going to end up, as the three people I stopped and tried to ask for help shook their heads blankly and continued to speak Dutch. I must admit that I panicked slightly, which might explain why I suddenly leapt to my feet like a madwoman and yelled Does anybody speak English?! over the general babble.

Still. At least I got back. And I seem to be getting over my fear of drawing attention to myself…

English: the Pick ‘n’ Mix of languages

How on Earth are you meant to explain the English language to someone who doesn’t have it as their native tongue?

I’m quite glad I didn’t go ahead with the original TEFL plan, you know. Speaking English without thinking about it, and just accepting all the silliness, is one thing, but what happens when you have to explain the ‘rules’ to a questioning adult? That’s when you discover that there are no rules – not really. Take plurals, for example. One might reasonably expect a one size fits all rule for something as simple as plurals. Add ‘s’. That would work, wouldn’t it? One dog, two dogs. One day, two days. One potato, two potatos. Except, hang on a second. You might want to put an ‘e’ in there – no real reason, it’s just what we do sometimes.

So, if I want, I can have ‘one dog, two doges?’ asks your student, interestedly. Erm, no. Only if it ends with ‘o’. One tomato, two tomatoes. Great, we have a rule. Add ‘s’, unless the word ends with ‘o’, in which case add ‘es’. Student nods, understanding. One hero, two heroes, he says. Excellent. One radio, two radioes. One cello, two celloes. No, wait… those ones don’t have an ‘e’. But they end with ‘o’! Much confusion ensues as numerous words ending in ‘o’ but not requiring an ‘es’ are discovered. The rule appears to be add ‘s’ unless it ends with ‘o’, in which case you may or may not have to add ‘es’.

It’s just plain embarrassing, then, when words like ‘tooth’ and ‘mouse’ and ‘shelf’ start to crop up. Amidst an increasingly nonsensical explanation of transitions from oo to ee, ous to ice and f to ves, you begin to realise that there are so many “rules” that it might just as easily be said that there are no rules. You begin to feel ashamed of your language, and somewhat guilty for always expecting even native speakers to get it right. Your student, meanwhile, only wants to understand. He does not realise that understanding is impossible. But why is the plural of house not hice? he asks, desperate for it all to make sense. Defeated, the only answer you can give is “I don’t know. It just isn’t. It’s houses.”. So the plural of louse is… louses? Um, no. It’s lice. But how are you meant to know? What’s the rule?

The rule is: don’t try to explain the rules of English to anyone. Before you know it, you’re into past tenses and how usually it’s add ‘ed’ apart from the times when it’s take out a vowel somewhere and add ‘t’ or make it a completely different word altogether (re: teach and taught – but no, preach doesn’t become praught. Why? I don’t know why). And then there’s pronunciation (and why is it not spelt pronounciation?)… no, there are no rules. None. It is utter chaos. And a complete embarrassment, to be honest.

It’s reminded me of a poem I’ve always been fond of. It’s been credited to a couple of different authors, and mostly just Anon, so if anyone knows who actually wrote it, please feel free to tell me so that I can give them the credit that they deserve for a work that sums up my feelings at the moment. Best read aloud for full effect..

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it's said like bed, not bead.
For goodness sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt)

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose --
Just look them up -- and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart --
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.
A dreadful language?  Man alive,
I mastered it when I was five.

Everything’s different here

I haven’t had many positive experiences with customer service.

I spent several months at the start of this year wrapped in a duvet and making pleading phone calls to my landlord about the faulty central heating, only to be fobbed off every single time and left to freeze. I was at the mercy of Apple when my laptop broke down and they insisted that it wasn’t under warranty – had it not been for the confidence and patience of Le Flatmate in being firm with the appropriate people, I’d probably still be working from internet cafés. And dealing with the bank when I had my card stolen was an exhausting and frustrating experience that I’m struggling to forget.

So when the shower suddenly stopped working yesterday morning, I found myself despairing. Getting someone to look at it would be extremely difficult, what with my lack of experience in looking up Yellow Pages listings in Dutch and all. And even if I did get the hold of someone, what hope is there of getting a workman to come and help you on a Friday? Foreseeing an icky weekend in a grubby, unwashed state, I glumly put the coffee on and sat mulling over my limited options.

I happened to mention it to one of the neighbours, who called in to say hallo. Up the stairs she trotted, all purposeful and motherly. It is a strange shower – runs on gas rather than electricity. Matches were struck, Dutch muttering was done. I stayed out of the way.

She returned, shaking her head and announcing that it was indeed on the blink. I will call someone, she said kindly. If you want to shower in the meantime, you can use mine.

How lovely. I sat down and took a sip of my coffee, deciding to reply to a couple of emails and then nip across for a shower. Plan in place, I opened my laptop, took another sip of coffee, and saw the plumber’s van pulling up outside.

Huh?!

Half an hour later, the shower was fully operational. Where was the long wait? What about all the frustrated phone calls? Why no arguments about it being nearly the weekend and them absolutely not having any free time until the middle of next month? Or the half-hearted tinkering followed by No, there’s nothing I can do with this, I’ll have to come back approximately 10 times with a selection of new parts and tools? Where was all the drama and fuss? The great difficulty in doing what they’re paid to do?

I feel slightly cheated.

Kissing on a park bench

I didn’t mention much about my Paris trip, mainly because it was a bit of a whirlwind visit – arrive, see as many tourist attractions as possible, attend book signing, visit a blogfriend, leave.

Having now had time to catch my breath and reflect, I have to say this: I love Paris.

Extreme temperatures aside, my only complaint is that I just didn’t have enough time there. My first couchsurfing experience was a positive one – I stayed with a couple my age, who have a beautiful apartment with gorgeous city views from their balcony. My hostess doubled up as my tour guide, and I saw a lot of things I wouldn’t have found on my own.

As for the Petite Anglaise event – wow! The realisation that Petite is actually an ordinary girl like me, who, bored in her job, discovered blogging… that was quite an eye-opener for me, with my tendency to get all star-struck and put people up on pedestals far above my head. I sat there, listening to her reading from her first book, and for the first time found myself thinking: maybe I could do it too! Maybe…

The next night, I went for (a truly delicious) dinner at Croque-Camille‘s. Naturally, I left far too early, clutching her step-by-step directions to her apartment in one sweaty hand, my half-litre of water in the other, completely prepared to get lost and dehydrated yet again. To my amazement, it didn’t happen. In fact, I got there with No Trouble Whatsoever. What’s going on? Am I growing a few strands of Common Sense in my head?

Anyway, ludicrously early for dinner, I sat down in a little park area to relax a bit and escape the heat. Three winos on a bench opposite me tried to harrass me and I stood (sat) firm, using my well-practised “I’m sorry, I don’t speak a word of French and have no idea what you’re saying” technique. Then, however, an old dude walking past happened to catch my eye. He smiled at me, and I made the grave mistake of smiling poitely back at him.

Old Dude descended upon me with the joyful grin of a long-lost friend. Ah, my little girlfriend! he exclaimed, to my alarm, doing a dramatic kiss-kiss of my cheeks. He babbled something else as I tried to shrink back in my seat, and I shrugged helplessly. Old French people are much more difficult to understand than the rest. The words are indistinguishable from each other, and to the untrained ear it just sounds like one long, gravelly growl. He finished and looked questioningly at me, and, still being polite, I explained that I didn’t really understand what he was saying. He wanted to know where I was from, and being Irish, it seemed, made me completely irresistable to him. I received more cheek kisses and one on the hand, and was incapable of doing anything about it, since I was sitting and he was standing and looming over me. So full of joy and love was his smile that to stand up and run away would have been downright heartless, leaving me riddled with guilt.

Did I want to go for a drink with him, he wondered. Erm, no. I didn’t. Maybe a coffee? Dinner? Anything of my choosing! Slightly freaked out, now, I dodged another kiss and explained that I was going to a friend’s house for dinner. Actually, I didn’t – the fear that he might decide to join me prevented me from doing this. Instead, I told him that I was waiting for someone. Undeterred, he asked if I might like to meet him later on for said drink. Erm, again, no. I am waiting for my boyfriend, I lied convincingly. Finally, he retreated, and I began to relax amidst a flow of “goodbye, so lovely to see you, take care!” type of remarks.

He caught me completely off-guard with his sudden return and kiss on the lips. I was speechless (other than an involuntary mmmmfff!), and a little embarrassed when he finally walked away and left me pretending not to notice the curious stares of the people on benches around me.

Who says the people of Paris aren’t friendly?

Sounding off

Whine! Whine! Whine!

The dog is crying at the back door, wanting to go outside. This is a little annoying, as just two minutes ago I brought him inside, but I am a kind and responsible dogsitter as well as housesitter, so I dutifully leave my work once again and plod through to the kitchen.

There is no dog. That’s fine, I suppose. Dogs are allowed to change their minds now and again, especially dogs whose owners are letting me stay in their house for free. I get a drink from the fridge while I’m on my feet, and go back to my computer.

Whine! Whine! Whine!

My backside has only just made contact with the sofa, and the dog is crying again. With forced calmness, I get back up, traipse back into the kitchen, and note the undeniable absense of a dog, crying or otherwise. I am beginning to lose my sense of humour.

Beep!

Never mind – the distinctive noise from my computer informs me that I have a Skype message, which momentarily distracts me. Skype messages always cheer me up. I return to the living room to see what my message says.

There is no message.

Whine! Whine! Whine!

Beep!

Hello? Hello?

Clink!

Angrily, I stomp into the dining room and stand, hands on hips, glaring at the parrot. This is Just Not Funny any more, I tell it firmly as it stares innocently at me, pretending to have been asleep. It sidles over to its food bowl and pecks around for a moment, looking quite forlorn. For a moment, I am fooled. Did I not give you enough food today? I wonder guiltily, edging closer to the cage to inspect the bowl. I am just about to add that no, in fact, there is plenty of food in the bowl, when the parrot – having lured me close – suddenly lunges forward and whistles shrilly, directly into my earhole.

I stagger back in shock and pain, and return to the living room without another word, clutching my no doubt permanently damaged ear. From the dining room comes a faint chuckling sound.

I have my very first Mortal Enemy.

Double Dutch

Today I went to the village market with one of the neighbours.

It’s fun, this leaping from culture to culture. From the buzz and crowds of Paris to the laid-back ambiance of a quiet Belgian village… I’ve been seeing and learning new things every day for a few months now, and I’ll never tire of it. After our wander around the market, we bumped into some of the neighbour’s family, and went for coffee and croque-monsieurs in the sunshine. I didn’t have much of a clue what the conversations were about, but I do enjoy listening to the language being spoken (and wondering if they’re exchanging jokes about me).

It was also useful that there was a small child present. Just learning to talk, he regularly shouted out one of the few words that he knew, and was encouraged and praised by all the family.

Fiets! they all chorused several times. Watching intently, I noticed that this happened every time a bike went past, and I made a tentative connection. Fiets? I asked my neighbour curiously, pointing as a bike roared past. She looked as delighted as the proud parent of a newly potty-trained toddler. Yes, yes, fiets! she exclaimed excitedly, patting me on the shoulder. I looked smugly at the toddler out of the corner of my eye. Two can play this game, I thought.

In fact, more than two – the family had now discovered a good method of including me in their group. Auto! chanted everyone, Hails and small child included, as a car drove by. Kijk! said the child’s mother at one point, and everyone turned to me and performed a mime for “look!” as good as any episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The child showed me up slightly though, by correctly identifying a lorry three times in a row, which was a bit annoying.

The bill arrived and people started fumbling for their wallets. I cleared my throat and tapped my neighbour on the shoulder. Hoeveel kost het? I asked in a clear voice. It was like hitting the jackpot, it really was. They all stopped and stared at me, smiles radiating from faces. One of them even applauded. And for that, said my neighbour proudly, waving my money away, it is our treat!

I grinned triumphantly at the toddler. I’ve only been learning Dutch for two days. He’s had over a year. A successful afternoon all round, I feel.