Oh No! You Idiot.
I once did the most stupid thing thanks to a very unusual Gremlin. You see I have a great way of keeping up my polyglot appetite for inexpressibles abroad. As some of you know I am totally bi-lingual in four languages – hang on that’s wrong. If I speak four that’s not bi-lingual it’s quatro-lingual, or is it? Avaunt all such irrelevances – and can write and get by in five more. But how do you think I keep up with them when my health stops me travelling much now? Listen.
If you know all the instructions on your computer, ie which keys do what, or which spaces mean ‘fill here with this type of information’ etc, you soon realise that you know instinctively what commands mean in other languages because they are in the same place as they would be in English. An example is that list of commands you get when cutting and pasting articles or just single words. I know where the command ‘paste’ is situated on my instructions list, so when I want to paste something in Italian I just hit the word ‘incolla’, because it’s situated where paste usually is. Note the use of ‘usually’ it’s the point of this post. Also note my computer is set up in Italian, like my Facebook page.
It also helps if you’re a sports fan, and if you follow a favourite pastime with a foreign commentary. You can see what’s happening on the TV so you know what the commentator is saying – as good as anyway. But there are times when these methods of expanding your vocabulary don’t always work. For instance, I can read Korean well enough to scan a newspaper, especially photo captions, as I had a Korean girlfriend in Seoul who taught me their pictographic alphabet. It was a revelation. It’s based entirely on the 26 letters of the English alphabet and, around 1560AD, the king of the country devised a way of using a symbol to represent each of our letters. Clever man, but he did a rather obtuse thing. If he had a six letter word, say ‘friend’ he didn’t write the six Korean icons out in a line as we do. No, he put them in a box to make them look like a pretty picture. Hence friend translates as 친구 (the little man’s arms are actually two separate symbols incorporated in the whole). You should see some of the letters I wrote to Choi after my trip to Korea with President Thieu of Vietnam in the summer of 1969. She said she hadn’t had such a good laugh in years.
But I married a Vietnamese girl, Anh, her tragedy is told elsewhere in these ramblings, and she taught me the similarity between Vietnamese, as written in Western script, and French. Vietnamese simply has about ten more accents. But she was amazed at my almost perfect pronunciation of her language. I was no genius, I merely had a mother brought up in Glasgow whose native speech was incredibly similar to Vietnamese in its guttural accentuation of every second or third word.
But what has all this to do with gremlins? Yes, I remember, I was showing off about how one can appear to know words in another tongue by cheating on guessing their finger positioning. The worst gremlin that ever attacked me was when I was covering the world ski-ing championships in Chamonix in the French Alps in 1962. My Sorbonne university life included such short absences to earn a small fortune covering sports events for my father, Paris bureau chief of the largest US news agency at that time.
After the men’s special slalom we all sped for the press HQ, no instant communications in those days, everything had to be written and handed to a teleprinter operator as fast as possible. But as we entered the Press room there was a power failure. No communications via electronic cables for at least fifteen minutes, we were told, as the generator had to be started up and we were all left in the pitch dark. But was I going to wait and not be first with the results? No way. I sat at the nearest typewriter, picked up what typing paper I could feel on the desk, and wrote the first four pages of my epic account of the day’s events, certain I had beaten everyone.
As the lights came on, I whipped up my four pages and was first in the queue to file my copy. Then I looked at it. It was some five hundred words of rubbish. Yes, in the dark I had sat at a typewriter with a Polish keyboard! At least my colleagues were so amused they helped me out when they stopped laughing.