Getting a haircut in Bangkok may be cheap, but you really do get what you pay for. I figured I should get some hair chopped off before I head home — it's a bargain here, plus I never get round to it when I'm in Sydney. I asked the lady: "number one on the sides, and nice and short on top — but don't shave the top." And what does she do? She says: "OK, no ploblem" — and then proceeds to brandish her shaver, and... vrooomp! There goes my hair. All but completely shaved off. "You say number one on side and short on top", she explained (this was just before I strangled her to death with a hair-dryer cord, you understand). "So I do number two on top." Arrgghhh! Hence, when you see me back in Sydney and I look like a gawdaym US Marine, you'll appreciate why and how this came to be. Next time, I think I'll get my hair cut by someone who speaks just a little more English.
As I approach the end of my massive world trip — I now have exactly one week to go, before I touch down back in Sydney — I can't help but think about what it's going to be like returning home. And one thing that keeps worrying me, is that after a year of travelling, my English language skills have become somewhat eroded! I never expected I'd ever be saying this: but I'm really concerned that my spoken English has deteriorated during my travels. I believe that it's been caused by a combination of my intensive Spanish study; of the significant amount of time that I've spent in non-English-speaking countries; and more than anything, of the amount of conversing that I've done, in English, with non-native English speakers.
This dude's real name is "Let", and he's my main instructor for the three-day climbing course that I'm doing here at Ton Sai. When I told Let that my name was "Jeremy", he had a lot of difficulty pronouncing it — the closest he could get was "Jet Li", and so that is now my official rock-climbing pseudonym. Let's a really nice guy: he's only been rock-climbing himself (let alone instructing!) for the past six months; before that, he spent ten years as a chef in a glamorous hotel restaurant in Phuket. His ability and his fitness levels are remarkable, considering how new he is to the sport; and after only six months of working with farangs, his English ain't so bad either.
I'm usually not too bad at absorbing useful snippets of the local language, wherever I go. But the Thai language is a different story: it's Really Hard™ to learn. So far, I've been going at a rate of about one commonly-spoken word per week, and I'm struggling to maintain even that. I've got kop-khun khap ("thank you") down pat, as well as the famous sawadee-khap ("hello" / "goodbye"). I'm working on sabadee-mai ("how are you"), sabadee ("I'm fine"), and sabai ("good"). Also picked up a few food-related words, such as gai ("chicken"), goong ("shrimp"), khao ("rice"), and kha ("coconut"). Plus, being here on the island has helped me pick up some geographical terms, such as hat ("beach"), ao ("bay"), and of course ko ("island"). But it's slow going, and the Thai words have a habit of being awfully slippery against my memory.
Lovely, sunny England is where I began my sojourns in Europe; and so too is it where I'm concluding them. Sunny — yeah, right; as usual, it's cold and wet and miserable here! I'm not exactly ecstatic about being back in England: especially after Spain, with its pleasant weather, its exotic vibe, and its upbeat spirit. But sadly, I booked London as the departure point for my flight out of Europe (many moons ago); and so it's to London that I had to return. In retrospect, I should have tried to fly out from somewhere else — anywhere else — on the continent.
My plan for today was to get through a good chunk of ye 'ol obligatory city exploration for Barcelona. At breakfast this morning (at Kabul), I got chatting with a Brazilian guy at the hostel — one of the many Brazilians staying there — and we agreed that since we had similar plans, we should go exploring together. The guy speaks barely any English: but his Spanish is (sort-of) passable enough for me to have a conversation with him en Español. Made for an interesting travelling companion, if a bit frustrating language barrier-wise.
Like Madrid itself, we were feeling extremely lazy and tranquilo today: so after our paella lunch, Miguel, Emmanuelle, the Aussie Indian girl (Shomare) and myself cruised over to one of the city's many cinema complexes. We decided to see American Gangster, a new Ridley Scott film starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Very well-produced movie, although quite violent and a little disturbing. The film was dubbed: and although I've by now seen plenty of Spanish-dubbed movies, the "Spanish Spanish" took quite a while to get used to (all that lisping and rapid-fire talking, it hurts my poor Peruano ears). Miguel obviously had no problem with the dubbing; but Emmanuelle and Shomare didn't understand much of what was happening. They just came along for the ride.
Europe is famous for being a small place with an awful lot of languages. Going through three or more language regions in one day is perfectly possible: and in the past few weeks, by hopping around on the trains, I've done just that. It was pretty intense in Switzerland, what with its German dominance, its smaller pockets of French and Italian, and its general nation-wide efforts at English. It was a little less full-on in Germany, where German is spoken by everyone around the country, and where almost everyone can also speak reasonable English. But upon arriving here in Belgium, it dawned on me just what a ridiculously over-linguified continent this is. And I'd say that as Europe goes, Belgium is about the most extreme example of language craziness to be found: the nation split virtually in half with the Flemish (i.e. Dutch) and French divide; smaller pockets of German in the east; and the whole place also being highly fluent in English. What with the plethora of languages to be learned, it's amazing they have time to do anything else at all around here.
On the train to Zürich today, it wasn't until I was less than an hour from my destination (and hence well inside the German part of Switzerland), that I noticed that the overwhelming majority of my fellow passengers were speaking in German. And it was only then that a scary realisation dawned on me, and hit me rather unexpectedly: this is my first time in the German-speaking world! And guess what: my German absolutely sucks! The last time I studied German, it was nearly 10 years ago, and I was too busy throwing paper aeroplanes around the room to have paid attention to the teacher. So apart from counting to 100 and saying a few basic words, I basically can't speak a word of the language. This is the first time on this trip (and in my life), that I've been in a country where I can't even begin to guess what people are saying around me, in the official language of their land. And it's really quite scary. Ach shizer!
Before I scooted off out of England this afternoon, I managed to duck into one of London's big bookstores, and to stock up on some literary resources that I'll need for Italy et al. For my planned trip to Sicily, I grabbed a copy of the Nat Geo Sicily guide, as well as a detailed (as in 1:200,000) map of Sicily, and another map of Southern Italy (from Naples to the tip). Additionally, I threw in the LP Italian phrasebook; and for my journeying in Central Europe, the LP German phrasebook. Hopefully, all that will get me through the next few months in Europe.