Today I would like to share with you the first of some of my reflections from wanderings into foreign parts with my good lady wife. What, very early in our cavortings, amused me especially was the interesting and challenging necessity to converse with the delightful folk we met who did not have much English or only had sufficient to ensure maximum expenditure by us upon their products, provender, or guidance.
I believe that I am able to be just about understood for our sufficient needs in German, French, basic English, partial American, and primitive Spanish and Italian ( although my gentle wife often comments when I am addressing a bemused Florentine in primitive Catalonian or inflicting ‘Guten tag’ upon a Spaniard…. ‘For heavens’s sake!’ she murmers, ‘Stick to gibberish – you’re fluent in that!’
In Madeira, in our self catering accommodation, I came across in an old guide book some suggestions for tourists to learn in Portuguese. It was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for the patronising English sightseer to get about the very hilly terrain not just by being pulled on sledges but also by being carried in hammocks slung between porters. This method was particularly favoured. Suggested Phrases were for instance:
‘I shall give you no money for drink until the end of the journey.’
‘I require two hammock men and a hammock.’
‘For my wife I require 2 very strong hammock men and a big hammock’
‘Do not swing my hammock so near to the edge of the ravine!’
And we found that in locally published guide books their spell checker did not always work adequately: ‘We can give of coffee, beer, and snakes for your fulfilment.’ (Shakes? Snacks?..)
Also in the local Funchal English language newspaper we found a disturbing advertisement;
‘Full English speaking Dental Service on bus route just near the old slaughter house.’
Some useful phrases to learn that might be helpful in any unfamiliar country occur to me:
‘Do you speak English/German/French/any language?
‘That is not correct officer. The waitress hit my granddaughter first’.
‘Will our food be long coming?’
‘It is now cold on this terrace, starting to rain, and getting dark. Can we move to a table inside?’
‘Ah, at last. No, waiter. I am the octopus and my wife is the dish of the day.’
‘Oh dear, we are now feeling quite unwell. Quickly, where are the toilets?’
‘Help! – We both need a change of clothing. Oh, thank you very much, how kind, we shall return these garments tomorrow. No, please do not concern yourselves, my wife can roll the overalls up above her knees and I think this apron and wraparound tablecloth are very fetching…’
‘My aunt did not steal the donkey, officer. It ran away with her when the attendant shouted.’
‘My husband is very old and I am looking for a museum for him.’
And a little handbook knowledge accessed in a hurry can be confusing;
‘Is this pineapple ripe? Can I try it on?’
‘What size are these shoes? Are they more than five minutes on foot?’
‘I would like a kilo of ham. Do you have it in a different colour?’
‘Is there a library where I can get local cheese nearby?’
Our sojourn in Madeira was enriched by the recognition that I now suffer from vertigo. It is not the heights that worry me, it’s the prospect of falling off them that brings on the palpitations.
The hinterland of this delightful island is crisscrossed by many miles of levadas, the extremely efficient drainage channels installed to capture rainwater from the peaks and valleys and convey it to much lower mini reservoirs and outlets. These narrow waterways, generally only about thirty centimetres wide, have beside them a very, very narrow pathway, often partially overgrown, with only very rare passing points, and generally perched upon the contiguous edge of the often precipitous hillside into which they have been cut.
Mocking my reservations my lovely wife dragged me miles along this perilous hazard, tremulous foot in front of tremulous foot, eyes bulging and fixed on the narrow crumbling way before me whilst she mocked my terror – ‘Its not always a sheer drop – sometimes there’s a lot of scrub to hold on to when you go…’ When?… Dear God, the portfolio of nightmares then lodged in what is left of my brain will last for years.
And the prospect of a lengthy stay in a Funchal hospital or an even lengthier stay in a local graveyard was not the only negative element of the day. There were not even primitive conveniences at the start nor anywhere along the course of our trek. Doggy doos were to be expected, but humankind had also fouled the scenery, only rarely squashing the undergrowth to void their bowels, always totally regardless of the environment, and encouraging multitudes of flies. Also, stepping very delicately along, we were suddenly nearly struck by a mad local peon rushing along astride his shopping bag over-encumbered moped. Confused perhaps by our screams he nearly shot over the edge of the precipice, but sadly managed to regain the path and swerved off with a merry wave and a cry of ‘Bravo English! – patronising swine…
Enough of Madeira… Next week we shall, very politely, join Hebzibah Paragon, a very special witch who once was the mistress of Dr John Dee, tutor and magician to Queen Elisabeth the first. Farewell then, for the moment…
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.