Foreign signs speak volumnesby Listener Archive
When you’re travelling overseas, the signs speak volumes.
Our rather gorgeous guide for Portugal/Spain was called Osiris. As in Osiris, Judge of the Dead: was our tour party really looking that bad? The comely Hispanic’s name was just one sign we were far from home. There had already been other signs: the ones in Hong Kong shop windows reading: “All Day Cafe: Hours 12.30 – 0.30”, and “Sucking Pig Sandwich”. The Daily Mail headline as we transited Heathrow: “Man hurled to ground by rutting stag”. The proclamation on a takeaway coffee cup at the same place: “A mastery of milk dribbling, steaming and stretching is fundamental to graduating as a Pret a Manger barista.”
Then came the signs that gained increased splendour from their native tongue. Guias sonores sounds so much more onomatopoeic than “rumble strips”. Museo del Jamón is far more evocative than “Ham Museum” – and just as surreal.
Certain ones were also signs of national temperament. They included written ones: “Support the Portuguese communist youth movement!” And pictorial ones: on the Iberian Peninsula, the two children’s figures indicating a school ahead aren’t the stolidly trotting silhouettes they are here. They’re sprinting flat-out, the little girl’s pigtails flying in the air. Their pell-mell progress may or may not reflect the habits of local drivers.
Conversation also can be a sign that foreign folk do it differently. “If I ask a Spanish person what they think of something,” Osiris told us, “they say, ‘I like it’, or ‘I don’t like it’. New Zealand people say, ‘It’s interesting.’”
Some signs may not have intended to imply aspects of national character. We’ll put the one that read “Please leave your values in the hotel safe”, down to a slip of the dictionary.
A number were unsolicited bonuses: the Information Board telling us that water for Segovia’s 2000-year-old aqueduct comes from the Rio Frio; the TV magazine called Voyeur. And I have to tell you about the “Pedestrians Cross Now” signs at Spanish intersections. They begin with the usual little green man walking briskly, while the remaining seconds count down above him. When there are 10 seconds left, he starts to jog. When there are five seconds left, he breaks into a frantic sprint. See school reference earlier.
There were the signs of devotion: “Luiz 4 Carmen” read the graffito on a wall in Cordoba. (Am I dropping the place names percussively enough?) The three staves of music tattooed around the right calf of a young guy in Porto. (Crash!) “Edith Piaf,” he told us. Presumably the tempo changes as he gets older and saggier.
And, of course, there were the signs of our own immaturity. We giggled when Osiris mentioned “the car now surpassing us”. Surpassing? You have to admit it’s a whole lot more colourful than “overtaking”. We exchanged smirks when she told us the balcony of the Pena Palace (Crash! Crash!) enabled the monarch “the fructifying of his outdoor potential”. We snorted when she told us of the princess of Portuguese legend who rebuked her mercenary suitor, “Your hands are on my family jewels.”
By contrast, my command of Iberian languages was flawless. One … sign of this came when I was complimented on my pronunciation of “Good night” when greeting hotel staff at breakfast. (I assume it was a compliment.) Another came in a restaurant where we were offered in halting English the choice between omelette and cutlet, and I answered in unhalting Spanish, “Beer, please.”
And there was the moment when we were about to bid farewell to the lovely Osiris as we headed for Morocco. (Crash! Crash! Crash!). Our new guide and driver had arrived and I wanted to make our Kiwi friendliness apparent. The fact that Morocco’s second language is French gave me the perfect opportunity. I strolled across to the driver, and with impeccable Gallic vocabulary and accent (courtesy of Victoria University of Wellington, 19--) greeted him and said how much we were looking forward to seeing his country.
The Moroccan driver lifted his hands. “Sorry,” he said. “No English.”
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