Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The voice in the restroom

It was in a men's restroom (i.e. a toilet) on a rest area (a lay-by or service station) next to a freeway (a dual carriageway) in California. Suddenly, a woman's voice rings out loud and clear, speaking in a language that hardly anyone can understand. She says “Dem Strassenverlauf sechzig Kilometer folgen!” Just imagine how the heads turn!
Oops, I have my GPS sat-nav in my shirt pocket and forgot to turn it off when I got out of the car. The lady in the electronic box obviously thinks I am still driving and wants me to continue for sixty kilometres (or is it kilometers?) straight ahead.
Yes, folks, I am taking a two week break. I am in jet lag country, a land where I have to make many adjustments. The most obvious is the time difference. When we touched down at San Francisco International, it was half past ten on Sunday evening - but in Berlin, which we had left just a few hours previously, it was already 7:30 on Monday morning. Nine hours! And in a couple of weeks I will have to make the same leap in the opposite direction!
Another adjustment is the language. When I left my home in Berlin, I thought I was going on holiday. But now I find that I am on vacation, and I am faced with a number of language mysteries. The first is the coinage. Exactly what value do nickels, dimes and quarters have? Quarters are explained on the coin (quarter dollar), but the dime coin only confesses to being a dime, without any numerical value, and the nickel (as far as I can make out), is just a slang term for one of those tiny coins with its value printed in words much too small to read in a hurry. Oh for those days of my youth when my currency of everyday use was denoted by easy-to-understand concepts such as tanner, copper, bob, quid and the good old threepenny bit.
So although I can hear and speak my native language here, some of the words are rather “foreign” to me. The water to wash my hands comes out of a faucet instead of a tap. A covered shopping arcade is a “mall”, which rhymes with “fall”. And the word “fall” itself has a couple of extra meanings. In the singular it is the season after summer, and in the plural it denotes a waterfall - as in the “Middle Falls”, which we saw yesterday. Very impressive, but it was only one “falls”. And the word “lever” rhymes with “clever” instead of “beaver”.
Power sockets have their own very distinct character here, too. A cute little face, but with a square nose and square eyes like a cartoon character. Perhaps the square eyes come from watching so much TV.
And even the seasons are different here. On the longest day in June, a day so hot that even the air conditioning in an American car is struggling to keep me moderately cool, a road though the mountains has to be closed because of deep snow. If I really tried to hitch a ride (or lift) there, I would have to wait a few weeks. Does anyone know what mountain this is? Anyone care to guess in the comments? Then I will let the cat out of the bag. Hey, that's probably a Britishism, I wonder what the locals here would say.
(Later addition:) OK, time to spill the beans. The mountain is Mount Shasta, which rises to over 4,000 meters/metres. The "Road closed" sign is at about 2,000 metres on a road that leads past the mountain, and even when open it probably does not go much higher than this car park.
We are staying in Redding, about 80 miles further south, and attending a Christian conference at a church here. There is a good view of Mount Shasta from the church grounds (sorry: campus).


  1. Ah, to let the cat out of the bag is not only a British saying; we use the exact same one in German (only in German, of course...), as I am sure you're aware of.
    And no, I can not guess which mountain it is. So, I am waiting for someone else to guess, and for you to let that poor cat escape!

  2. I have spilled the beans - the name of the mountain is now at the end of the post.

  3. Hi Victor

    Your blog is really interesting! I've really been enjoying going through the posts!

    This post is of particular interest because I can really identify. I always find when being in a foreign country the currency is a big problem for me. I can't seem to dfferentiate between coins and the shop keepers get annoyed I'm taking so long.

    I also remember when I was in the UK how I saw hot ginger beer and ordered it. I thought it meant hot as in 'warm' but to my surprise I was handed a cold ginger beer. 'Hot' really meant 'spicy'. One of the may 'lost-in-translations' I've experienced even though English is my mother tongue.

    Anyway, you have a new fan now and am subscribed to your RSS feed:)

  4. Yes, your "hot" ginger beer is another nice miscommunication anecdote. Glad you enjoy my blog. I have added yours to my blog feed, too.