Thursday, July 13, 2006

Self Defense

I suggest taking a dialect course if you plan on traveling abroad. Especially on one in a language that is not likely understood in the country you will be visiting. You'd be surprised at how effective it can be!

Take last evening for an example. I took the train into London to walk around and take some pictures. I had a picture in my mind of what I wanted. This is more-or-less what I was hoping to get. It would have been nice if we had had a bit of cloud cover so that the sky was a bit more interesting. But there are other evenings coming up.

So there I am, the sun is sinking in the west and my time s involved in getting the right lens, framing and exposure. When this guy comes up and starts talking to me. In spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that I have my camera gear out in the pack and have obvious things that I am doing he tries to strike up a conversation.

“Got a fag, mate?” he asks in one of those dialects that I recognize as being one I cannot quite properly imitate. At first, I was pretty sure hemust be talking to someone else. I am busy here! I’ve got my attention completely focused on my camera (pun intended). When I show no intention of responding, he repeats himself. Now I am pretty sure he is talking to me, and I am not at all sure that the last time he had said it was the first time.

Was I so involved in my set-up that I was oblivious to my surroundings? I have to pay more attention. I lean over the camera again, make an adjustment and as I am snapping a shot. He touches my arm. “Excuse me, mate, can you spare me a fag?” he says. I turn and without really meaning to at first, I give a guttural grunt that could be “yes,” could be “no,” or could be almost any other one-syllable word. Heck, it might have been what it was, a startled gasp that someone would invade my personal space and touch my person uninvited.

I have to admit, he was the one who gave me the idea to do what I did next. He leaned in, spoke a bit louder. The manner and the annunciation reminded me of the old Dave Barry line about there being actual places on the planet where people will not understand what you say to them in plain English unless you speak very loudly.

“¿Como se dice?” I said, mimicking a Cuban accent as best I could remember how they go.

“A fag? You know…” he said, pantomiming the act of smoking a cigarette.

“No entiendo como se dice.” I said with a look of confusion to punctuate the idea that I didn’t understand him. I turned back to my cameras, thankful that my documentation was all stashed away in a zippered pocket and there was nothing English showing in my bag.
“Oy! Mate!” he said now poking me in the shoulder. “What’s the matter? Don’t you speak English? All I want is a fag.”

I turned and looked at him and with the best pigeon I could muster said “No Eenglees.”

“Bloody foreigners!” he yelled at this point. “If yer carn’t speak English stay in your own bloody country, mate!”

“No entiendo como se dice.” I repeated shaking my head and shrugging. “No Eenglees.”

He pantomimed pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, taking one out and smoking it. “Fag.” He said.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the lens cap. “¿fig?” I said hopefully.

“Look mate, can you give me a fag?” he said, the exasperation growing. I have to admit at this point, his sheer resolve was amazing. It was almost as if he were stuck in a situation from which he could not figure-out a way to extract himself. I had become his personal Iraq. “F-A-G.” he said again, again pantomiming the smoking.

I was truly having fun now. I moved the lens cap toward my mouth. “¡Fog!” It was all I could do to keep from spluttering with mirth. My face the absolute mask of confusion; I kept looking at him as if at any moment he might reveal the secrets of the universe to me.

After a few minutes of this, his will broken, he slunk away, beaten. I felt like saying “If you mean cigarette, just say ‘cigarette’” to his retreating back. But I decided to play the game to the end. Plus, with the agitation he was showing I was not at all sure that revealing my deception at this point wouldn’t result in violence. “Hasta llego.” I called to his retreating back. “¡BuenosTarde!”

The interruption over, I returned to my photography. It was an interruption, but at least it was entertaining!

I hope that wherever you are, you find something entertaining; whether by design or by chance.

Don Bergquist - 12 July 2006 - Thames Ditton, Surrey, UK

Editor's Note:

After I had posted this entry to my blog, a co-worker and I were discussing the activities of last evening. When I suggested that I had a perfect way of defending oneself from unwanted intrusion upon one's time, and then had to admit it was to pretend not to speak English, my coworker said "But you don't do you."

The cheek of some people!

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