By PAT HARTMAN
Let us consider one of the components of The Third Tower Up From the Road, a piece called “Useful Phrases.” Like many other travelers and travel writers, Kevin Dolgin believes in learning the words that signify civilized politeness in one’s host country. But there’s more to it than that. Here’s a quotation worth paying close attention to — and the reason will soon become clear.
Bitte is a great word. It can mean many things, depending on the intonation. It can mean “please” or “thank you” or “are you out of your mind?”
Let’s back up a moment, to the title. “Useful Phrases.” Yawn. I mean, at first glance, a person might be excused for thinking this subject is a little too utilitarian to be, you know, entertaining. Acquiring such phrases is a worthy achievement, of course, like when Anglo hospital staff learn how to say Le voy a tomar la presion de la sangre, and other apposite constructions. But no. Kevin Dolgin is talking about something else entirely.
He’s talking about wandering around in a foreign country, telling people that there’s a penguin in your closet, or that your father has ten toes. Well, no wonder they say, “Bitte?”
“Useful Phrases” — Ah, that such an infinity of meaning should be contained within such a minimalist title. In addition to “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” the Dolgin Theory of Cross-Cultural Communication recommends mastering one phrase that is totally nonsensical. Or, at least, a definitive all-purpose non sequitur. The resulting dialogue usually makes a charming tale, like what happened when Kevin said “I would like a large chessboard” in Spanish.
The Swedish phrase he recommends is “My hedgehog isn’t stupid,” and of course there’s a story attached to that one. Furthermore, he says the hedgehog line once came in handy when he gave a speech to 350 Swedes.
Now, here’s a strange thing. As a young teen, I read everything Gypsy-related that was in the hometown public library, and learned some Romani words. The only one I seem to have retained is hotchiwitchi, and guess what that means. It means hedgehog. Is that weird, or what? Incidentally, you can’t go wrong spending an afternoon looking at pictures of hedgehogs. The real ones tend to blend in with the natural surroundings unless they’re crossing a lawn or something. Artisans employ the hedgehog likeness to create toys, planters, chairs, cartoon characters, and logos. Chefs make desserts that look like hedgehogs. Here’s an intriguing up-to-the-minute bit of hedgehog news. A website called Hotchiwitchi is devoted to books, DVDS, and various other media, whose mission is to enhance understanding of, and tolerance for, the Gypsy and Traveller cultures. The best part is, they’re for children.
What does it mean to say that a writer has that certain je ne sais quoi? One symptom is, when you read their stuff, it makes you think of things from your own life, stories which you then endeavor to frame in an interesting way. The solid psychological reason for liking someone’s style might be their knack for reminding you that your life, too, has been pretty darn interesting. Which is always therapeutic.
What is this leading up to? There’s a little episode in “Useful Phrases,” and I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it involves a certain type of perfect existential moment. It recalled something from one of my travels: a comment made in a park in Toronto. This park had a pleasant oval-shaped running track, and next to the track was a sculpture of Jean Sibelius, the composer of Finlandia.
So we watched two women running, and I said, “Are they racing?”
And my friend said, “See that statue?”
“That’s the Finnish line.”
Okay, one more. Two friends were debating something about movies, and one of them called me in as an authority. “What was that hunchback’s name?” and I said, “Does Quasimodo ring a bell?” I swear this really happened. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and a peak experience, in the subcategory “Nerd Fun.”
In the beginning was the Word, and “Useful Phrases” is a prime illustration of the Power of Art — that is, if you consider language an art form, which many do. Which leads us to the question of the day:
What is your useful foreign phrase?