Intercultural Obfuscation

Scott Gardner

Some of us are not at liberty to travel for the time being, so here are a couple of silly memories of ancient vacations to remind you of what you’re missing. Those of you who identify with any generation that follows the letter W may find these episodes a bit “disconnected”, as in “Why didn’t they just Google it?” Unfortunately, when these events took place, we did not carry Hello Kitty-decorated, music-playing GPS locators in our pockets, and we were forced to buy bulky travel dictionaries containing hundreds of other phrases besides “Wo kann ich kostenloses WLAN bekommen?” (“Where can I get free wifi?”)

1) My wife and I had driven our rental car into Genoa, Italy, and now we were desperately trying to get out. After a series of navigation snafus (regardless of culture, religion or ideology, people around the globe are generally united in their abhorrence of drivers going the wrong way on a one-way street), we felt like flies in a lantern. We knew we had to go southeast but, as in Japan, Genovese roads heading southeast never continue that way for very long. We spotted a carabinieri station and decided to appeal to authority for help. We parked the car and shuffled toward the station. At the same time, however, three young, tough, uniformed men emerged from it and began heading toward us. Considering all the other wrong turns we had taken in town already, I was sure they were going to tell us we were parked illegally, or that a car matching our description had been seen fleeing an art gallery heist nearby. But as we approached they remained tight-lipped, as if waiting for us to make the next move, right or wrong. Both parties came to a stop, forming a sort of conclave in the middle of the parking lot. I started the negotiations with a standard American tourist greeting, “Does anyone here speak English?” In response, the shortest, toughest one on my right took charge and stepped forward. He smiled broadly, reached out his hand and said, “Yes, yes ... he does!”—pointing to the tall clueless-looking one in the middle, who stared speechlessly at his comrade for a moment, like a gasping fish. Then all three of them started laughing.

2) Later on the same trip we were hiking in Switzerland, and everyone we passed on the trail seemed to know my name. They would nod in a friendly manner and mumble something that invariably ended in the word “Scott”. I thought at first it was a coincidence, but after several of these seemingly personalized greetings from complete strangers, I was feeling weird. Did I have a sticky nametag on my shirt, left over from a forgotten high school reunion? That night at the hotel restaurant we decided to consult the American exchange student who was our server: “Everyone up on the mountain today seemed to be greeting me by my name, ‘Scott’. What’s up with that?” “Don’t be paranoid,” she said. “It’s a Bavarian greeting, Grüß Gott. It means hello.”

3) I’d lived in Japan for about a year, and I was in that cultural toddler stage, trying to show everyone, friend or stranger, that I could get around on my own. I was walking near the train station when a European couple approached me and asked, “Sorry, but do you know where the Castle Hotel is?” I didn’t know the hotel, but I was sure of two things: 1) the city’s castle was about two kilometers to the east; and 2) castle in Japanese was oshiro (お城). So, after suggesting that they probably weren’t in the right place, I offered to help. I sought out friendly faces on the street and asked, in stilted Japanese, if they knew the whereabouts of the “Oshiro Hotel”. The first few people passed by with a shake of the head. One woman finally stopped to listen, tried to point out where the castle was (“I already know that,” I bragged), and left with an apologetic shrug. Disheartened, I asked to see the couple’s reservation, hoping there would be a map or something I could get a clue from. As they pulled it out I noticed the words “キャッスル・ホテル” (Castle Hotel) in katakana across the top of the page, meaning that I was overzealously translating the hotel’s intentionally borrowed English name. Self-contemptuously I asked the next Japanese personin English—“Do you know where the Castle Hotel is?” She paused, looked over my shoulder, and pointed to the building we had been standing in front of for the last five minutes, clearly labelled in both languages.