Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Sunday, April 30, 2006

London, United Kingdom: The Lingua Franca

Conventional wisdom says that English is spoken everywhere: it’s the only language the traveler needs to know since it’s found from Tibet to Thailand, Angkor Wat to Amsterdam. Pity the poor traveler who only speaks Korean, because when it comes down to it, everyone speaks English don’t they? In fact, Americans seem to take this to heart, given that so few bother to learn a foreign language, and that unless you make a point to immerse yourself in another country, there are few opportunities to speak anything but English (or Spanish) inside the US. But is it really easy to get around everywhere with English? We should know: we left New Zealand on January 30th, and with the exception of India--where English is one of the official languages, but the combination of very strong accents and the dialects made things difficult for us to understand--we’ve not been to an English speaking country until reaching the shores of Great Britain.

Has it been easy? Yes and no. We’ve encountered what we can best describe as degrees of spoken English. There are the situations where English is at a premium, and where your English speaking guide in Cambodia (or China) can recite historical facts about the famous site you’ve signed up to see, but is unable to answer an impromptu question, like “How bad is that Dengue fever outbreak?” or “Where can you buy a SIM card?” We’ve also been in situations where the hotel clerk can speak excellent English, but the only English-language channel on TV is CNN. We’ve come to expect the two extremes and can get by fine, but if we had a serious problem--say a medical emergency--there might be more reason to worry.

Conversations on the street in most countries we’ve visited are almost never in English, unless you are overhearing American/British/Ozzie/Kiwi tourists. Many conversations we’ve had with others in English (Andy speaks French and I speak German) are usually of a formal nature, not only because we are just meeting someone, but because Americans speak in a totally unique manner. We didn’t realize how much we missed it until we got into a conversation with an American guy in Florence and within minutes were casually speaking with the cadence and vocabulary that we haven’t heard since leaving our parents in January.

It seems that there are many debates going on in parts of the world about the dominance of English as a language for business, scholarship and tourism. We were talking to some Swiss people who were telling us that there is a big debate in the German-speaking part of Switzerland about whether to teach French or English first. Apparently all Swiss kids learn two foreign languages, one when they are quite young and one when they are in high school. There are some who worry that if they teach English first, there would be no motivation to later learn French, but there are some who think if they teach French first, they will undoubtedly learn English since the Swiss understand that it is the lingua franca.

French President Jacques Chirac threw in his two euros on the subject when he walked out of an EU summit meeting as one of his fellow Frenchmen addressed the audience in English rather than French. After Chirac asked his colleague why on earth he was speaking English, he added that the use left him “deeply shocked” Yes, there is a dose of Gallic pride in Chirac’s reaction, but perhaps there is also a resistance to the effects of globalization where everything gets flattened to American or Asian terms as Starbucks, sweatshops and superhighways eradicate what makes places unique. And it’s a bit ironic because the term “lingua franca” literally means “French language” and originated when that country dominated world diplomacy.

Why do we talk about this now? Because we have been in London since Easter, where we were feeling a bit relieved to be dealing with things in a language we totally understand. Yes, they speak English here, but we don’t usually hear the traditional English accent, but English with hints of Indian, Chinese, Eastern European or African influences. London is looking like New York City, where there are some 300 languages being spoken and in some areas of the city, English is a second language.

We have not been so acutely aware of the homogenizing powers of globalization until coming to London. I have remarked that there didn’t seem much to write about London because it seemed so much like home. With Starbucks on every corner (the only countries where we didn’t see a Starbucks were Vietnam, Cambodia and Italy!), the neighborhood pub advertising a Thai menu, and special three-day bank holiday sales, it’s felt like the closest thing to the US we’ve seen in nine months. Sure, they still do the changing of the guard here, the police wear the cutest hats, and the taxis have a unique shape, but this is not your grandma’s London. This is the economically strongest, most diverse, and forward looking European capital we’ve seen.

The London of yesterday is still accessible at the Tower of London, and the London of tomorrow is being embraced as evidenced by the Millennium Bridge and London Eye (brought to you by British Airways). But the London of today is hard to pin down, except to say that its expensive. London is fast becoming the most expensive city in the world, it currently resides as third most expensive behind Tokyo and Osaka Japan.

We’ve included a few signs we’ve found in English from around the world, some strange, some blunt, and some whimsical.

Friday, April 14, 2006

(h)Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Baby it’s cold outside…

Dylan’s motivation for the trip is kind of lagging right now. She’s homesick and almost every sentence she speaks these days begins with “When we get to Portland...” So in order to get her kind of excited to get to our present city, Amsterdam, I started calling it (h)Amsterdam, since she loves all small fluffy rodents and the thought of tiny hamsters running around the street would rally her enough to get on the plane.

Well, you can imagine her disappointment when there were no hamsters or rats to be found.

“Where are those damn hamsters?” she’s asked, but she’s discovered other charms that the city holds. The canals, the tall slim houses that tilt at exciting angles,

the varied cusines, and the huge number of people bicycling make this one of the most livable, accessible, fun and (dare we say) charming of all the cities we’ve visited.

It’s the first place where we can imagine ourselves living, but only if we have a house on a canal and a bicycle decorated with plastic flowers!

It’s freezing cold here, and we’re thinking of writing a book entitled Around the World in a Foul Mood, only because it seems that we are having the bad luck of hitting extreme weather wherever we go.

“Is Paris always this miserable in March?” I asked our hosts after 20 out of 23 days of freezing rain. “Does it always snow three inches in April?” I asked the nice barista in Zurich.

The snow in Bern, Switzerland

“Is it always freezing cold in Amsterdam?” we ask our host, a Filipino who had a previous career as a Diana Ross impersonator. No, never they say. It’s an unusual year they add, staring up at the sky. The calendar says mid-April but the temperature says “Oh the weather outside is frightful…” Sure the weather might not mean much when you’re headed to the office every day, but when your “job” is to walk around, getting a feel for the heartbeat of the city, it can put a damper on the best laid plans. Our only hope is that we are not still wearing our scarves and gloves in late May when we enter Norway and the Czech Republic. Hope springs eternal, with the key word being “spring” over here on the Continent.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Rome, Florence & Venice Italy: The touristas hit with a vengeance

Well it’s happened. We’ve gone from being adventurers to being tourists. Part of it is a question of geography: Tibet, Malaysia and Korea are rarely visited and to us were exotic, while our experiences there seemed fresh and novel. But it’s also a question of time. Our visit to Italy coincides with the very start of tourist season, and it seems everywhere we’ve gone, hordes of grownups (mostly American) and school kids (mostly Italian) have taken to the road for the ultimate class trip. Rome, Florence and Venice anyone?

That’s not to say we haven’t enjoyed much of Italy. We loved seeing the sights in Rome, especially the ancient ruins of Palatine and the Coliseum.

And Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

But Florence just seemed like crowds upon crowds and unless you are really into art, there’s not much to write home about--we felt as if we were just another group of tourists needing to be fed and guided. I know other world travelers have had similar experiences, George and Sally wrote about it in their journals, and we must say we’ve noticed it as well.

We did have one minor adventure. I (Loey) was sitting on a bus and noticed that my pants were cut along the leg. Oh god, I thought, have I really been eating that much gelato? Upon further inspection I realized that it wasn’t a rip due to unseemly thigh growth, but that I had been intentionally sliced with a knife by a pickpocket who was sly enough to cut my pants without cutting me, or having me notice, but unlucky enough to go for the wrong pocket: my wallet was in my coat!

Venetian traffic jam

A bird’s-eye view of Piazza San Marco

It’s election time in Italy