Tag Archives: Kevin Dolgin

Of Taxis and Tuk-Tuks

News Editor

From the scholarly streets of one of England’s venerable university towns comes the story of the tuk-tuk proposal, as related by Jack Grove in the Cambridge Evening News. Grove, on closer scrutiny, appears to be one of those eclectic-minded journalists who writes about everything. He provides some helpful background to raise our tuk-tuk awareness:

¦ Tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorised rickshaw, is named after the spluttering noise emitted from its engine.
¦ They’re very popular in the Indian sub-continent and Far East, particularly in busy cities such as Mumbai, Bangkok and Delhi.
¦ Models proposed for Cambridge would carry a driver and two passengers, would have seatbelts and a maximum speed of 35mph.

These little vehicles, which seem more appropriate to a circus ring than a city street, are cute, but are they safe? A tuk-tuk can roll over, and it’s eggshell-frail, so there is little protection for passengers in the event of collision with, say, a bus. The safety issues are pointed out by the taxicab companies, whose motives are purely altruistic and community-minded.

Thus far, only one entrepreneur has applied for a tuk-tuk license in Cambridge, but worried clingers to the status quo have warned the public that once you let one fleet of tuk-tuks loose on the streets, others will soon follow. And they’re probably right.

The proponents say that tuk-tuks could help alleviate the congestion in the ancient streets, even if all they do is carry around guided tour parties, which is about as far as the idea extends, for the moment at least. They say we have the technology to improve on the Thai or Indian tuk-tuk designs, and with a speed limit of 30 mph they should be safe. Besides, your average tuk-tuk gets 150 miles per gallon of fuel. Which is always a plus.

In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin documents his surprise to find that in Manila, the tuk-tuk is an unknown species. Instead, you find vehicles that are kind of like bicycles with sidecars, some with the same rickety motors, others just with pedals. The passenger compartment is covered on top and open on the sides.

However, he does go on to say a few well-chosen words about Filipino taxi drivers. You might also want to check out his review of the tuk-tuk drivers of Thailand.

In other international taxi-related news, we note that Seoul, Korea, has a fleet of 120 taxis for the exclusive use of foreign visitors, with English- or Japanese-speaking drivers, that can be reserved by phone. In Myanmar, you can still catch a cab that’s so rusted out, the road can be seen through the floor. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the government has given up on trying to regulate taxis, much to the detriment of tourist transportation. In Colombia, travelers are warned not to get into a taxi that already has two occupants, and advised to let the driver see that you are memorizing the number on the side before getting in.

China is about to acquire 1,000 London-style taxis, which will be manufactured in Hangzhou. In the Shanghai Daily, Dong Zhen and Ni Yinbin report that Shanghai installation of special rooftop lights in all of the city’s 40,000 taxis. A taxi must signal availability, and then make itself available to any passenger who wants to ride, rather than being picky on the basis of whatever criteria taxi drivers tend to be picky on the basis of. Shanghai also now offers a hotline that travelers who speak English, Japanese, French or German can call for help in communicating with taxi drivers. And Laura Bashraheel reports from Saudi Arabia on the sad and very expensive plight of foreigners and, more importantly, of Saudi women, since neither class of people are allowed to drive. Taxis are not a satisfactory solution.

At TechCrunch, Jose Antonio Gallego Vazquez gives advice specific to Madrid, Spain, while at Associated Content, Jeffrey Hanes offers five handy foreign-taxi-savvy tips, and Jose Soares offers several more. General rules everywhere include: carry plenty of small-denomination money so you don’t encounter a situation where a driver claims he is unable to make change. And always, always check for stray belongings before exiting a car, which is so much easier than trying to track them down after your taxi has driven away.

Sicilian photo courtesy of geoftheref, used under this Creative Commons license; Thai photo courtesy of Marshall Astor – Food Pornographer , used under this Creative Commons license; Cuban photo courtesy of exfordy, used under this Creative Commons license

Big Doings in Quirky Slovenia

Ljubljana Roofs

News Editor

Joseph Stedul, a journalist for Javno, the multimedia news portal that is one of the top 50,000 sites in the world, translated this account of one unwelcome tourist in Slovenia’s capitol city:

The bear that partied on the streets of Ljubljana last week has returned, so for public safety, killing it has been authorized. Even though the bear is not dangerous, more precisely it has not attacked anyone, the relocation has not succeeded, and the authorities consider that they should not risk it, and have decided to eliminate it.

The bear first showed up back in April, hanging around by the zoo. Cherchez, as usual, la femme – a female bear resides there. The visitor was shot with tranquilizer darts and dropped off out in the country. But, unable to resist the lure of Ljubljana, it returned. An official from the Department of Large Animals was quoted as saying, “I advise the hypothesis that the bear did not come from nature at all.”

Then, sadly, the bear was reported to have been shot for real, according to the Slovenian Press Agency.

Earlier this month, the good people of Ljubljana aspired to make history with the construction and consumption of the world’s largest dish of ice cream, 35 meters long (roughly 114 feet). It took a lot of technology, supplied by the Jozef Stefan Research Institute, and the hoped-for outcome is a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

We learn from FemaleFirst’s handy list, “Slovenia – 18 Things You Might Not Know,” that some parts of The Chronicles of Narnia were shot on location in this small but charming country, which is also the home of the world’s oldest vine.

It seems that a Slovenian design firm called Asobi invented this modular seating concept, which is basically a whole lot of very skinny chairs bolted together, however many you want. It makes a wide seat or a narrow seat, with or without a back. However, the Ljubljana chair seems to be available only in white and in a shade of orange that should be outlawed.

We would never have known about this place of more than average interest, if not for Kevin Dolgin, who visited the impressive and rather lyrical Ljubljana Castle and who also greatly admires the red tile roofs and the numerous dragons. Of the latter he reports:

Legend says Ljubljana was founded by Jason (formerly of the Argonauts, before his solo career as Prince of Corinth). According to legend, Jason fled from Colchis and the pursuing King Aeetes … founding Ljubljana on the way (assumedly during a rest stop). There, Jason battled a great monster, which is portrayed as the Ljubljana dragon.

Who would have thought that so much went on in Slovenia?

Ljubljana Dragon

SOURCE: “Bear Returns to Ljubljana, Must Be Killed” 04/23/09
Roofs photo courtesy of UnorthodoxY , used under this Creative Commons license; Dragon photo courtesy of xiquinhosilva , used under this Creative Commons license

Excerpt: Useful Foreign Phrases

Useful Foreign Phrases

an excerpt from the new book



by Kevin Dolgin
Published by Santa Monica Press
Reprinted with Permission


The Third Tower Up from the Road contains capsule visits to over 50 world cities. In this piece, Kevin Dolgin, who speaks three languages, provides perhaps the most useful answer to the problem of not knowing the language in the cities you visit.

In one swift lesson, Dolgin provides you with a trick to communicate in any language that will quickly have you over the language barrier and off on an interesting adventure.

This story may inspire you to create your own Useful Foreign Phrases. Please send them along to Kevin at kevindolgin.com and we’ll display the best we get.

You’ll find more information about the book, The Third Tower Up from the Road, and author Kevin Dolgin after the excerpt. Bon Appétit!

“Useful Foreign Phrases”

by Kevin Dolgin

Long ago, I determined that there are three broad categories of linguistic fluency. The first is the perfectly comfortable level, ranging from your native language to any language in which you can converse with ease, although at the lower end of this scale you probably have a headache at the end of the day.

The second category consists of those languages in which you can generally make yourself understood with the aid of sweeping gestures and meaningful grimaces.

The third category comprises languages that are a complete mystery to you.

I’m fortunate to have three languages in the first category and one or two more in the second. This means, though, that every other language is in the third category. I have a theory about these. For me, these languages are either/or affairs. If you travel to a country in which the principle language is a category III language, then either you work on it enough to get it to category II, or you learn only how to say “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and one phrase that is perfectly nonsensical.

The principle reason for the nonsensical phrase is that it’s a sure conversation-opener. No one will imagine that the only thing you know how to say in their language is “My hovercraft is full of eels,” (to borrow someone else’s nonsensical phrase) and therefore an immediate cultural exchange will ensue. Really, this works.

I thought I would give you a number of these, in case you plan on traveling to countries with category III languages. I’ve given them to you in the languages in which I use them, but you can use the same nonsensical phrase in a variety of languages, and I confess that I have learned the first phrase I cite in four or five different languages, ranging from the original Swedish to Cantonese.

I’ll also point out that for the most part, I’m not trying to spell these words properly. I’m using approximate spellings, as if they were spelled the way one would expect (or at least the way I would expect), and not with silly squiggles and such. I’m doing this because the last time I tried to write something in Swedish in a column (about Ingrid the intelligent rat), I was informed via email that I had not gotten it right at all, so I’m not even going to attempt it any more.

Enough of the preliminaries; let’s get to the useful phrases.

“My hedgehog isn’t stupid.” In Swedish: “Min igelkot e inte dum.”

This was my first nonsensical category III phrase. I used to hang around with a Swede, who decided to teach me some of the language, which was a thoroughly frustrating exercise for us both. Eventually he gave up and suggested: “Learn to say ‘Min igelkot e inte dum’ and no one will expect it’s the only thing you can say.” I therefore learned this and we tested it out on a couple of friends of his who came from Göteborg to visit. When I met them I rose, shook their hands, explained about my hedgehog, and smiled. They looked very surprised and started speaking rapid Swedish to me. I protested, explaining that this was all I knew, which they refused to believe, and a long conversation ensued (in English), which quickly veered toward more interesting topics. Hence was born my theory about nonsensical phrases.

This phrase has served me well and long; I even employed it when giving a speech to 350 Swedes, with much the same effect (at a ski resort in the middle of Sweden, but that’s a story for another column). The most convincing example, however, did not occur in Sweden at all, but in Massachusetts, of all places.

I was in a bar one evening with a couple of Americans and a very unusual Argentine who had a French name and lived in Mexico. He was part pharmaceutical executive, part fashion photographer, and part party organizer, and he had been telling us a highly embarrassing story about an incident involving fifty cardiologists, an airport security system, and a nipple ring (I won’t get into the details, but it ended with his assertion that it would have been much worse had he been wearing his other body jewelry).

Anyway, at that point, a young man entered the bar accompanied by two young ladies. They had apparently stepped in out of a commercial for the World Wrestling Federation, because he was certainly built like a member of that esteemed organization, and was glowering as well. For all I know, he was indeed a wrestler — “Nick the Neanderthal” or something.

He looked around the bar, and disappointment registered on his prominent brow ridges, probably because there weren’t enough people around to admire his upper arms and the women clinging to them. The three of them sat near us and ordered something (champagne for the girls, warm blood for him). We ignored them and continued our revelry.

Before long, the wrestler muttered something, ostensibly for the benefit of his companions, calling into question the masculinity, or at least the heterosexuality, of our Argentine friend, who luckily didn’t understand it (he was just crazy enough to challenge this guy to a duel or something). I therefore hastily took the floor in our little group and began expounding on my theory about category III languages and nonsensical statements (see above). In the course of explaining this, I taught them all how to say “Min igelkot e inte dum.”

Immediately, the two girls sitting with fireplug-man squealed, leaned over, and said, “Din igelkot e inte dum!?” Then they started speaking in rapid Swedish. I stopped them, explaining that this was all I could say, they didn’t believe me… etc. The normal routine.

They left their companion and came to join us, asking all the while about how I had learned to say this, and who we were, and what we planned on doing later that evening. Needless to say, this annoyed the inert mass of muscle with whom they had entered the bar, but he was too confused to do anything about it except to grunt “let’s go” to them. They replied with what I assume is a Swedish insult, and he left, after making a rude gesture at us all.

“There is a penguin in my closet.” In German: “Es gibt ein Pinguin auf meinem Schrank.”

German is, in fact, more of a category II language for me, but it’s pretty low on the scale, and besides, this is a great phrase to use in German. I particularly recommend it for hotels, if you’d like to get to know the staff. This will also provide you with an introduction to the word “bitte,” which will inevitably be the response of any German to this phrase. 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?”

Needless to say, it’s in the latter sense that it’s generally employed when responding to the phrase “there’s a penguin in my closet.” Of course, you don’t want to be nasty, you need to explain rapidly to the hotel staff that there is not, in fact, a penguin in your closet, and that you were just employing your single phrase of German. If you do not explain this quickly, them being German, they will dutifully send someone to remove the penguin from your closet, and that would not be a very nice thing to do to the cleaning staff.

“I would like a large chessboard.” In Spanish: “Quiero un gran tablero de ajedres.”

This actually began as a useful phrase, since I really did want to buy a large chessboard (in Toledo, if I remember correctly, which is a beautiful city that you should definitely visit). I wandered around asking for large chessboards, and did indeed end up buying one (upon which I regularly play). However, I have since employed it as a nonsensical category III phrase.

This has come in handy in a number of instances. One comes to mind from an evening in Barcelona (which reminds me that I’ll have to write about Barcelona soon… how I love Barcelona!). I was having dinner on the terrace of one of the delightful restaurants near the navy museum, on the harbor. I was alone, which is unfortunate in a city like Barcelona. Anyway, the waiter was a very pleasant gentleman who spoke to me in Catalan, and then in Spanish. I speak neither, and I explained this to him in slow Italian, but then told him that I wanted a large chessboard in Spanish. He was perplexed, he shook his head and pointed at the menu, apparently reiterating that this was a restaurant and that chessboards were not food. I tried again to explain, in Italian, that this was all I could say. He eventually understood and was intrigued.

It was a slow night in the restaurant, and the waiter, who it turns out was an avid chess player, sat down after a while and we engaged in a spirited conversation about chess (specifically about the king’s gambit opening), in a mix of Catalan, Spanish, and Italian. A wonderful evening.

“Is that a kind of frog?” In Japanese: “Koreiwa kairu no ishu des ka?”

The whole “koreiwa [thing] no ishu des ka?” construction can be very useful. For instance, if you replace “kairu,” meaning frog, with “sakana,” meaning fish, then you can pretty much know what can and can’t be eaten in Japan, which is handy, since you can’t even make the usual supposition that things must first be dead, let alone cooked, before you eat them. If it’s a kind of fish, though, then you can eat it, even if it’s trying to swim or crawl away. However, the frog phrase will get you more conversational mileage, at least partially because the answer is rarely “Yes, that is a kind of frog.” (“Hai, korewai kairu no ishu des.”)

This particular phrase has actually proved most useful to me in Paris. I once saw a young Japanese man standing on a street corner on the boulevard Sevastopol, studying a tourist map. He had a backpack on, and sewed onto the backpack was a cartoon character that seemed to be a kind of frog. With no introduction I said, “Sumimasen [excuse me], koreiwa kairu no ishu des ka?” This was one of the few times that I have actually been able to stun a Japanese person. “Hai! [yes],” he replied. I nodded significantly and walked away.

It should also be added that the way one comes out with the words is important in Japanese. If you are a man, you should spit the syllables out as though you were expelling vile-tasting marbles from your mouth. If you are a woman, you should murmur them demurely, while behind them you suppress something between a giggle and a plea. I confess that I would hate to have to be a woman in Japan.

“I love you; I want to spend my life with you.” In French: “Je t’aime; je veux passer ma vie avec toi.”

French is a category I language for me, and this is hardly a nonsensical phrase, but I thought I should include this one all the same, not for its shock or conversational value, but rather because it’s possible that if you live abroad for a while you may end up needing it. Of course, by that time, I assume French (or whatever the language of your host country might be) would be category I for you as well, but you should be warned about this one either way. I suggest you think twice before saying it — use the utmost discretion, because it can have a profound effect on your life. However, if used in the right circumstances, and especially with the right person, then I can tell you from personal experience that this phrase is capable of bringing you unspeakable joy.

About the Author

dolgin-auKevin Dolgin is a professor of marketing at the University of Paris, Pantheon-Sorbonne. He writes the column “Kevin Dolgin Tells You About Places You Should Go in Europe” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and regularly contributes to Opium Magazine.

Kevin’s stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including Absinthe Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, CrossConnect, Night Train Review, and The Vincent Brothers Review.

About the Book

dolgin-covTHE THIRD TOWER UP FROM THE ROAD: A Compilation of Columns from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

by Kevin Dolgin

Published by Santa Monica Press
(ISBN 978-1595800435, 334 pages, trade paperback, $16.95)

Available through this site or directly from the publisher, Santa Monica Press:


“Again and again, [Kevin Dolgin] introduces his readers to charming, unique aspects of familiar and exotic locales…. A highly enjoyable read, this should charm any sightseer, and inspire a number of travel plans.”
— Publishers Weekly
, starred review

“Reminiscent of the writing of Dave Barry or Tim Cahill…. this book will make an excellent companion in your armchair or on your own adventure.”
— Library Journal

A humorous and entertaining collection of travel essays made up of old favorites as well as new commentaries, this work celebrates the distinctive qualities of locales the world over. Each globetrotting essay focuses on a specific place, capturing the flavors and cultures through individual observations and exceptional experiences.

Funny, irreverent, and insightful, these writings eschew the bland, touristy veneer experienced by most travelers as Dolgin seeks to discover what is special and unique about each destination. Covering a wide range of places and interests, from unusual experiences and humorous traveler’s foibles to voyages that are intensely personal and moving, the selected columns include:

  • “The Best Falafel in the World – Beirut”
  • “The Door to Hell: Paris – France”
  • “Kafka’s Erotic Dream: Prague”
  • “The Nesting Habits of Roman Cars”
  • “Of Romans and Pussycats: Provence”
  • “The Third Tower Up from the Road: The Wall of China”

Copyright (C) 2009 by Kevin Dolgin. All Rights Reserved. “Useful Foreign Phrases” previously appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Please feel free to duplicate or distribute this file as long as the contents are not changed and this copyright notice is intact. Thank you.

Cambodia, Not Swimming: Angkor

preah khan

News Editor

Today, we consider a piece by the maestro himself, Kevin Dolgin, whose lovely “One Dollar Cow: Angkor, Cambodia” can be found at McSweeney’s.

Here’s the convoluted reason why. Poking around in cyberspace, we encountered a helpful web page where Susan Breslow Sardone, longtime Romantic Travel Guide for About.com, recommends destinations based on a traveler’s zodiac sign.

Now, it happens that Mr. Dolgin is a Gemini, a type of person described here as having a “quicksilver mind” which needs plenty of stimulation in the form of novelty and action. The compiler of astrological trip-ticks assures us that the ideal Gemini destination is … “a great city.” Several possibilities are mentioned, all in the United States, two of them being Las Vegas and San Francisco.

Both these cities have been delineated by Mr. Dolgin in his essay “The West,” which appears in Kevin’s new book, The Third Tower Up from the Road. And while they are undoubtedly both great cities, neither one is what you might call exotic. So, onward to the jungles of Cambodia, and the remains of an urban center the size of Los Angeles.

First, we learn that Angkor means “city.” In the record business this is known as an eponymous title. And why not? Many groups throughout history have called themselves names that meant, in their tongues, “people” or “humans,” so why shouldn’t a city be called “City?” Especially when it surrounds a temple that turns out to be the largest building ever constructed in the service of religion. This edifice, Angkor Wat, is a marvel of the stonemason’s art, every millimeter of it covered with intricate carvings guaranteed to blow your mind.

But if you think this is Angkor’s only temple, think again – about Preah Khan, a former Buddhist monastery which Kevin describes thusly:

It is a vast network of passages crossing each other in a complex pattern that stretches the imagination by its very conception.

And, Preah Khan has been left alone, not scraped bare by archaeologists. So it’s all overgrown with vines, and pleasantly spooky. Pre Rup, a temple featuring pyramidal spires, is also recommended. It was here that the author was offered the one-dollar cow, and also here that his friend recalled and recounted a mystical encounter, in another time and another land, with another cow. “I’ll never forget that,” the author says, and neither will we.

Happy Birthday, Kevin!

SOURCE: “One Dollar Cow: Angkor, Cambodia”

photo courtesy of nimbu , used under this Creative Commons license