How to explain our relationship? Is it her tone, or her occasional dementia, that challenges me? Sometimes she can’t find a song she played for me the day before. When I remind her of that, she just says, “Sorry.”
Just now, I asked Alexa to play WRNR (deep-cuts, always-good music station in Annapolis). She heard and played “WBUR.” (Murmuring conversation underway. Looked it up: Boston-area NPR station. Okay, Alexa knows I listen to NPR locally.)
Still, I’ve asked her to play WRNR maybe 500 times before, and she’s never had trouble. It’s like we’re speaking different languages, but only some of the time. I enunciate consciously for her, and I don’t wear a face-mask at home.
Maybe she also suffers from springtime allergies, that cloud even her cloud-based ears? I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.
My phone’s Map and I also share a language, yet her voice lands with delight. She mispronounces street names like an earnest child sounding out new words, a sticky book in her lap. (Rather than HER-mitage Road, she alerts me to Hermit-AGE Road.) Charming, as long as you make the turn.
These casual mysteries of technology, they aren’t ‘important,’ just entertaining to me. As a kid, I could not have imagined speaking to an electronic device to find a radio station, or to find the most efficient route from point A to B. Phones seemed ‘smart’ when they had push-buttons instead of rotary holes. Cameras – good cameras – and maps, recommendations, addresses, songs, even films, these couldn’t possibly fit in one contraption, that fit in one pocket. Traveling (or living in place) in the 21st century, feels to me such a revolutionizing experience, day by day.
Not that human-to-human communication is any walk in the orchard! The simplest interactions have always been fraught, or confusing, or amusing, with so much in-between, as long as communication has existed.
Maybe as long and old as our mysterious Universe?
What if Earth is the WBUR of what the Universe had intended (WRNR)?
Not necessarily a lesser iteration of a planet full of (carbon-based) life, but maybe not the planet requested, imagined, hoped-for. Maybe the Universe expected ambidextrous chains of amino acids. Maybe humans were meant to resemble birds, or bulls, or --
Yes, I digress. All to say, as long as we’ve tried to communicate, there’s always room for error or misunderstanding.
Neil Armstrong was supposed to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” as he jumped down to the Lunar surface. But he left out the “a” in “a man” so he sort of said mankind twice. (Now, we might hope for “a human” and “humankind,” or human-kind twice. Or “carbon-based life-form.” Trying to communicate respectfully, in the 21st century, also seems a revolutionizing experience.)
Sounds, syllables, words, cave paintings, they’re all symbols, representations, even if abstract. We do the best we can, on our meek but mineral-rich planet.
Last week at work, during an experiential-learning exercise, a standardized-patient answered a med-student’s question about medications. The patient replied through his face-mask, “I take Valium, for my nerves.”
Soon, the med-student asked the patient, through his face-mask, about his nurse.
“Nurse? Oh, I’m not there yet!” The patient chuckled. (Why would you assume I needed a nurse? But an almost delightful, if naïve, assumption there, youngster.)
A minute later, the student asked again about nurses coming to his house, to help out.
The patient shook his head. He lifted his hands in a half-shrug. The student apologized, “I must have misunderstood,” but he seemed equally confounded. By the end of the visit, they parted with genuine rapport, but neither looked relaxed.
You may have figured it out already: when the patient said, “Valium for my nerves” the student must have heard, “Valium from my nurse.” (Thanks for watching the video, Wendy!)
How much, in every hour of every day – with or without masks – gets lost in translation, through sound, or the missing tone of a text, even through a shared alphabet? And without a shared alphabet, we’re back to ‘acting out’ with gestures, or drawing crude pictures.
Years ago, a friend and I took a long walk from a cheap hostel in Chania, the capital of Crete. Greece was the first country I explored where the very letters of the alphabet were different from my first- or school-learned language (English, French). My only Rosetta Stone? The symbols of fraternity houses, where I’d gone to college. Sometimes I could figure out a street or store sign that way, if I’d had friends who pledged somewhere with similar letters. Sometimes.
Patrick and I took that walk together. We had both heard while traveling on-the-cheap, “if you ever need money in Greece, at least you can always sell your blood there.”
The dollar-to-drachma exchange rate was hugely in our favor, yet we felt deeply insecure; we were both trying to make our adventures last longer. I was in that unique, interstitial space between college graduation and my first student-loan payment, a continent away. Patrick didn’t have student debt, but he didn’t know what lay ahead, career-wise, and hoped to forestall any decisions, a different continent away.
In Chania (a.k.a. Canea or Hania), we paid US$ 1.00 a night for a room with a big, sway-backed bed and an outdoor shower. Pretty sure we had a toilet and sink inside.
We paid another dollar for an amazing dinner, in ‘restaurants’ where the Menu was simply the Kitchen. You’d be led back into a kitchen to see and smell the choices that night. The cook would give you a taste of each, if you looked undecided. I remember tasting a wonderfully spiced meaty stew once, and pointing without hesitation.
Still, my traveling companion, a South African of British parents and passport, and I felt insecure. We wanted to experience as much as we could, while we were still so young and stupid.
No shower for a week? Totally fine, and more than once. No bed to sleep in, but a railcar bench clacking along, or a semi-enclosed, if breezy, train-station bench? Totally fine. Choosing between food or a giant cappuccino all day? Easy. Didn’t we have a couple of figs from last week?
We’d met aboard the cheapest bus from London to Athens, off-season (January, 3 days straight, with no toilet on-board, through a still-Iron Curtain*). Patrick had a Walkman**, and old Stevie Wonder cassettes, and he let me listen for a while, on the bus. This was a rare delight. Such devices, at the time, devoured batteries in a couple hours. So, music, at all. And oh did I miss my guitar, Clarence. The callouses on my fingertips had all but softened and floated away by then.
Once in Athens, we considered cheaper, less-popular Greek Islands to visit, finally chose Paros, and hauled ourselves and our backpacks to the port, Piraeus, one night.
Only to find the ferry to Paros had been cancelled. For no apparent reason. We were used to this, being off-season.
We stood on the edge of the pier. The somewhat-English-speaking dock-worker added, “One hour, a boat for Crete. It will be all the night.”
Crete? A tumble of Minoan images, downright mythical mosaics, came to mind. Patrick and I looked at each other and shrugged. Neither of us had imagined going there. I held up two fingers for the tickets, “palacolore,” I added.
That “Please” was one of my phonetic scrawls on a napkin, from the 3-day bus ride. I’d asked a somewhat-English-speaking man from Thessaloniki if he would teach me the Greek sounds for Please, Thank you, and Okay.
I think he even gave me the napkin to scrawl upon. I do know he snuck a few Baci chocolates into my palm as well, saying something to the effect that I reminded him of his daughter, or granddaughter? He used his hand to describe his own face while he told me I “look just like her.” I will never forget his kindness, our brief connection, nor how to say those three polite words from him. These – and my memory of him -- have felt more like music to me than words. Maybe because I had no alphabet of letters and ‘real’ words, only sounds, and my version of writing down the sounds.
As sudden Cretans for a while, Patrick and I dumped our backpacks in the cheapest room we could find. In January, our outdoor shower appealed only so often, but we took one every few days, then hustled inside, grateful for walls and a roof overnight, and a blanketed bed to share. We slept like young animals, no alarm, nowhere to be, but there in that bed, warm-blooded mammals who stumbled upon each other on a planet including a Mediterranean Sea and an island of myths and stories.
We skipped breakfast every day in favor of dark, muddy coffee, the sun already climbing. We learned the difference between “coffee” (dark, muddy espresso) and “Nescafe” (their word for American-y watered down caffeine). The mud was better, if slightly choking in its final, silt-filled sip.
Our daily lunch? A shared packet of freshly roasted, salted almonds from a cart-vendor down at the harbor. Maybe a couple of apricots from the fruit-guy nearby, if we felt reckless. One day, for no apparent reason, our almond man handed us a paper saucer. On it, a piece of bread with a giant sardine on top. We devoured it, bite by bite, in turn. “Eff harishto!” I thanked him.
Patrick suffered from chocolate cravings – to palliate his quit-cigarette cravings – so most afternoons, he broke down for a bar of Ritter Sport. Then, come evening, our splurge, the $1 kitchen-sampled dinner. Often we shared a table with another couple who stayed in our hostel.
Patrick and I loitered there in the capital of Crete for 3 weeks, without feeling the time pass. We meant to venture further south to explore some of the ancient caves. We talked about it every other day. But we mostly just hung out, wandered around the harbor, talked about music, or what life was like in our Anglophone, but wildly different, home countries.
We barely spent $70 that whole month, for all our animal comforts of shelter, food, cold-Mediterranean swims, and wandering. He would put his Walkman’s foam ears on my head, playing something like Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” album. (“Oh!” I said, “like ‘The Exorcist’!” Patrick had no idea what I was talking about. “No, this is Mike Oldfield.”) We had grown up on different continents, with different forms of racial and socioeconomic segregation, different histories of film, music, sports, schooling. We kept forgetting that. Partly because we, mostly, understood each other’s words.
We never made it to any of the caves on Crete. The furthest we ventured from our very local life was that walk to find the hospital. With the cost of Walkman batteries alone in mind, Patrick and I started walking. Off to sell our blood!
We had plenty of extra blood in our bodies. At the time, we could hardly imagine ever turning 50, much less 80, much less living through a global pandemic like SARS-2-COVID. We could hardly imagine being alive in the 2020s. That sounded as sci-fi as voice-commanding a radio station from a small cylinder in your living-room.
Yet without peripheral brains like smart-phones, every negotiated decision took much longer to accomplish. How and where to find anything in a strange town, even just to sleep? You’d walk to possible hostels (addresses listed in thick, worn, paper guidebooks on your back) and hope for the best. Only to find the place full – closed, off-season! So you’d keep walking, long after dark, fingers crossed, heels calloused. You’d try to pronounce words so that passersby could try to understand where you aimed. As likely as not, the way you said the word meant somewhere else, and their elaborate directions only pointed you further away from a place to rest your weary corpuscles that night.
So to find a specific hospital that might buy your blood, you had to ask around, with sound and syllables from your strange alphabet. You had only gestures or drawings that might provide a clue to the language-cloud of other ears. You already understood the sign of a cross, in whatever color, meant not only something religious, but also healing. That was a start.
You might even, the pair of you? Become annoying, to a certain vendor of roasted, salted almonds. You are surely rich and robust, you Yanquis! Why pester me with your fingers forming crosses? (Meanwhile, his brother, or son, was out at sea, hauling nets full of wonderfully salty sardines.) Endaxi, endaxi, it’s all good.
Somehow, the pair of you gather enough intel to start hoofing for your blood-money.
It hadn’t occurred to us that a cross might also mean: pharmacy. We soon passed many green crosses that did not mean hospital. (Fortunately, as it turned out, these also came in handy.)
Part 2 will continue the long walk there (and back)