English abroad: Globes, robots and bogies

Stop light_240

 

I must have been about eleven years old when the headmaster of my preparatory school, the Hall School in Hampstead, interviewed all of us individually in preparation for our applications to secondary school. When I had answered several questions using the word ja (pronounced ‘yah’), the headmaster said that it was wrong to say ja when I should be saying ‘yes’. 

The reason that I said, and often still say, ja instead of yes is that my parents were born and brought up in South Africa where ja is often used to express the affirmative.

In my childhood, I heard my parents using words that form part of South African English. At table, I always wiped my hands and mouth with a serviette, rather than a ‘napkin’. And, when we relaxed we usually sat in the lounge, rather than in the ‘sitting room’ or ‘drawing room’.

If I wanted to see a film, my father would enquire at which bioscope it was being shown. And, if a light bulb needed changing, he would insert a new globe

When we were in the car we used to stop at a robot, if the traffic light was showing a red light and then proceeed when it changed through amber to green.

By now, you can see that I was raised in England, but acquiring vocabulary that was only used many thousands of miles away below the Equator in South Africa. So, it was not surprising that I answered the headmaster with ja instead of ‘yes’. But, he probably had no idea about my parents’ background.

Many years after leaving home, I began visiting India and encountered another local English vocabulary. For example, when the car needs more fuel, you fill up at the petrol bunk. And, if you have baggage, you put it in the car’s (or bus’s) dickie, rather than the ‘boot’. And en-route you drive round a circle, rather than the ’roundabout’. When you board a train, you do not enter a carriage. Instead you board a bogie. If you want your coffee without sugar, do not say ‘without sugar’ but do ask for sugar less.  And, so it goes on…

 

English might well be one of the world’s most used languages, but it abounds with regional variations. American English is a prime example of this. As Oscar Wilde wrote:

“… we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language

A vulgar audience

music

 

I enjoy attending events at the Nehru Centre, the Indian High Commission’s cultural centre in London. However, the audience can become quite unruly occasionally. 

Only afew days ago, I attended a concert of Bengali and Hindi songs pertformed by an excellent Bengali male vocalist, Soumyen Adhikari who accompanied himself on a harmonium. He was also accompanied by a superb tabla player. 

The audience was, as is often the case, restless. People arrived late throughout the performance. Others kept moving from one seat to another or leaving the auditorium only to return a few minutes later. All around us people in the audience were chatting to each other loudly whilst the musicians performed. They would not be silent even after having been asked repeatedly. All of these disturbances are quite normal amongst Indian audiences and are more or less tolerable.

What really upset me at this particular concert was the ignorant comments shouted by some members of the audience. After the singer had sung several beautiful songs in Bengali, some people began shouting things like “Sing something in Hindi”, “we can’t understand Bengali”, and “enough of Bengali songs”. 

I cannot understand either Hindi or Bengali, but that does not detract from my enjoyment of songs sung in these languages. What is important to me is that the singer has a good voice and that the musicians play well. Just the lovely sounds of the songs and the music is a great pleasure for me. It upset me that so many of those around me lacked the  ability to appreciate the beauty of what was being played. Their approach was so parochial that all they wanted was something familiar, which they had heard over and over many times before. I felt sorry for the singer, who is clearly a masterful performer whom I would happily hear again.

A keen salesman

Elephant_240

Many years ago when we vere on holiday in India, we visited a historic Hindu temple complex in the State of Karnataka.

When we left the enclosure containing the amazing temples with thier intricate stone carvings, we were approached by a little boy, who could have been no more than ten years old. He wanted to sell us some quite attractive miniature elephants carved in stone. Out of politeness, rather than curiosity, we asked the price.

“200 rupees,” he said.

We told him that we did not want the carvings.

“100 rupees,” he said, hopefully.

“We don’t want them, thanks,” we said.

“50 rupees?”

“Really, no thanks”

“25 rupees?”

“Really, no”

“10 rupees?”

We tried to make it clear that we did not want the carvings at any price.

“Have them for nothing,” the little boy offered.

We still did not take them. I often wonder what would have happened next, had we accepted his three elephants as a free gift.

Directions

directions

 

I travel a great deal and sometimes get lost. It is then that I might ask a passer-by for directions. Generalising a bit, the kind of answer you get tends to vary from country to country.

During trips to the USA, I have either been told that the person I asked has absolutely no idea at all or I have been given very precise, accurate directions. 

In the UK, if you ask directions from the average person you meet by chance, several things might happen. First of all, you might be given accurate directions. More likely, you will recieve a vaguer reply like:

“I think it’s somewhere in that direction. Follow that road, and then ask again.”

Because most British people want to be helpful, you might be told:

“I think I’ve heard of it. You could try going that way, but I’m not sure.”

But, it is very rare that you will be told:

“I’ve absolutely no idea.”

In India, asking directions can result in a small conference taking place. People within earshot of the person you first asked will join in the discussion. Often each person will point in a different diection in an attempt to be helpful and also to have the chance to meet a stranger. Like the Americans, who will happily admit ignorance of places that do not have any importance in their lives , many Indians also only know how to reach places where they need to be but not others. But, unlike the Americans, Indians do not want to disappoint visitors to their country by not supplying some kind of answer.

Of course, all of the above is highly generalised. But, here is one specific example, which occurred in Istanbul, Turkey. We were looking for some place of interest, but could not find it. We entered a shop. Without having any knowledge of Turkish, we managed to make it clear what we were looking for. Without hesitation, the shop keeper abandoned what he was doing, becckoned us to follow him, and then walked with us through the area until we reached our desired destination.

 

 

No outside food

 

The Coffee Cup café in London’s Hampstead has been in business since 1953, and has been very popular since I first remembered it in the early 1960s. I have visited it several times, but never before noticed the sign at its entrance, which reads: “Please do not bring food or drinks from outside into these premises.” This instruction is not seen frequently in restaurants and cafés in the UK. Seeing this sign reminded me of what is very common in eateries in India, namely, signs reading: “Outside food not allowed.” Customers are forbidden to bring into the estblishment food or drink they have obtained elsewhere. That is fair enough, I suppose.

Cinemas in India, like in many other countries, try to sell food and drink to their customers, often at outrageously high prices. Apparently, watching a film is for many people more enjoyable if you are stuffing popcorn into your mouth at the same time as spilling it on the floor in the dark.

Back in 2001, my family, my in-laws, and my wife’s brothers family went to watch the recently released Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at a large cinema in Bangalore (India). After purchasing the tickets, we had to wait in a queue before all of our baggage, shopping baskets, handbags etc., were searched by uniformed security personnel. I wondered what these officials were looking for. Was it guns or explosives, I asked my sister-in-law after we had reached the auditorium. No, it was not that, she replied. They were looking for food and drinks brought from outside the cinema. She told me that outside food was not allowed into the cinema, and then showed me inside her shopping basket, All I could see was a shawl (some cinemas are too cool because of air-conditioning). She moved the shawl aside to reveal that her bag was filled with sufficient drinks and snacks to easily satisfy all eight of us during the three and a half hour film. So much for the security check! Had we been carrying anything more dangerous than ‘outside food’, this would have also been missed by the not so vigilant security people.

It is odd how a chance sighting of something like the sign in the Coffee Cup can bring back distant memories.

Chopsticks

 

My earliest recollection of eating Chinese food was in a restaurant called ‘Tung Hsing’ in Golders Green almost opposite the old Hippodrome Theatre. It opened in the 1960s and was one of the first restaurants in London to serve Pekinese food, rather than the then usual Cantonese cuisine. The restaurant was owned by a retired ambassador from Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist China and his wife, whom I believe was responsible for the very excellent food served. 

Although I am sure they were available, I am not sure whether I used chopsticks when eating at the Tung Hsing. Maybe, I learned to use them there, but I really cannot remember. Whatever the case, I have been eating Chinese food with chopsticks for many decades. I would not say that I am 100 percent proficient with them, but I feel that using them to eat Chinese food satisfies me.

Chinese-style food is very popular in India. Most Indians eat in Chinese restaurants using western utensils such as plate, fork and spoon. If you ask for chopsticks, they are usually available, but they are not supplied as default table settings.

Some years ago, early this century, a new Chinese restaurant opened in Museum Road in Bangalore. We visited soon after its inauguration. It was a lovely restaurant and the food was good by Indian Chinese restaurant standards. As usual, we asked for bowls and chopsticks. The waiter disappeared for a while, and then returned empty-handed.

“There are no chopsticks,” he told us.

“Why not?” we asked.

“I will ask the manager.”

The Manager came over, and explained:

“We have been so busy since we opened, and many of the guests have taken them home as souvenirs. So, we have run out of them”

 

Be reasonable

Booking

Last year, we were booking our daughter into a simple home-stay by the sea in Kerala, India. While we sat in the owner’s office, I spotted a framed certificate issued by the Booking.com website. It showed that the home-stay had earned a 9.8 out of 10 satisfaction rating. I congratulated the owner for achieving this. Sadly, he told me, the latest rating was now 9.4.

“That’s still pretty good,” I said.

“Maybe,” the owner replied, “but it keeps going down. The problem is the Indian guests who stay at my place.”

“Why?” I asked.

“When foreigners come and pay £10 per night, they know what to expect,” the owner began, “but when Indians come here they expect accomodation worth £100 even when they are only paying £10”

“The problem is,” he continued, ” that Indians arrive expecting included breakfast, a swimming pool, and other facilities, for which they would usually have to pay £100 or more. These are not available at £10 per night. So, when they write their reviews on Booking.com, they give us a low rating, which is not fair given how little they have to pay. These low ratings bring down my overall rating.”

I sympathised with the man, who then admitted:

“I would rather have no Indians staying here. I prefer the foreigners because they know what to expect of budget accommodation.”

When I stay at places that I have booked on Booking.com, I tend to be over generous with my rating unless there is something very seriously bad about the place. Also, when choosing where to stay, I am not put off by ratings of just over 6 out of 10. I have often found hotels with lowish ratings to have been under-rated because people have been over-critical about minor defects.

So, when you next rate a place you have visited, try to be fair and reasonable with your ratings.

Green and wet

The heart of Central Europe_800

 

As a child and teenager, I did not like gherkins (pickled cucumbers). My parents ate them, but refused to buy them if they were made behind the Iron Curtain, for example in  Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Poland. They would only by jars of these green, wet vegetables if they were made in Western Europe, say in West Germany or Holland. You may well wonder why my parents were so fussy about the origin of their gherkins. The answer is simple. They were unwilling to buy anything from Soviet-dominated parts of the world because they felt, rightly or wrongly, that every penny they paid for goods from these areas would help the Soviet Union pay for yet another atomic bomb or some other military equipment that could be used against the West.

I did not worry me where my parent’s gherkins were grown and bottled, as I did not eat them. This was true until the late 1970s when McDonalds opened a branch of their hamburger restaurant chain in London’s Haymarket.

At first, I felt that I was too superior to enter a McDonalds, and developed an irrational prejudice against the company. Eventually, some friends decided to eat at the Haymarket branch andas I was with them and also a little curious about McDonalds, I joined them. I cannot recall which burger I ordered, but whatever it was, it contained slices of gherkin. I did not remove the gherkin as I might have done had I been served it a few years earlier. I bit into the burger and realised that it was the gherkin that made the rest of the burger sandwich delicious. From that moment onwards, I have become a gherkin afficionado.

I am happy eating gherkins anywhere. However, some of the nicest gherkins that I have found are those often served in fish and chips shops. These large, very tasty specimens often come Holland. Served from large glass jars, these gherkins are often known as ‘wallys’ (pronounced ‘wollees’) in London and South-East England.

Finally, here is something that you might not know about gherkins. The south of India, which I visit often, hasbeen a major producer and exporter of gherkins since the early 1990s. The soil condition in that region are perfect for growing the cucumbers that will be pickled. For more information, see: http://igea.in/.  Had these been around in the days before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I wonder whether my parents would have bought them.

Getting to grips in the kitchen

 

Just in case you have not got one in your kitchen, here is an implement that is extensively used in Indian kitchens and tea stalls.

The sandasi (pronounced roughly like ‘sun-er-see’ said fast), which is is also known as a pakad (from the verb ‘to hold’ in Hindustani) or a chimta (from the verb ‘to pinch’ in Hindustani), is essentially a pair of sturdy hinged metal (stainless steel) tongs. The handles of the implement are several times as long as the gripping elements. This means that quite heavy things may be lifted with the beaks of the tongs without any risk of them slipping out of their grip.

The sandasi’s long handles also mean that the user’s hands can be kept at a safe distance from the hot cooking vessels that are lifted with this pair of tongs. For example, the tea maker can lift and manipulate with ease the huge pots containing several litres of a bubbling, boiling mixture of milk, tea, and spices. 

I find the sandasi very useful for gripping the edges of large casseroles when I am stirring hot food like stews or curries.

Cooking tongs are, of course, available in countries other than India, but the sturdy construction and long handles of the sandasis have much to reccommend them.