Monday, 23 June 2014

Really Right

One of the more shaming aspects of everyday Austrian life, for a Brit, is the marvellous infrastructure.  It was amazing and admirable, to me, that I could walk five minutes from my hotel into the village, board an electric train-cum-tram that runs every 30 minutes, and be in the heart of Innsbruck 30 minutes later.  A return trip costs 5.60 euros.  Moreover, the trams and buses still run to the same daily timetables on a public holiday.  In Britain, there might be a bus twice a day, but more likely there wouldn't be.  And on a bank holiday?

I think most of us find that using public transport in any country is the quickest way to expose the inadequacy of one's command of the language.  My German ought, in theory, to be quite good.  Certainly, if it's a discussion of aesthetic philosophy or something similarly abstract, then I'd probably be able to understand and even contribute, if only at the level of nodding and murmuring, "Really? Right ... Right..."  But buying a bus ticket is the true test of fluency and yet, oddly, has never figured in any examination, written or oral, that I have ever sat.

The problem is the sheer depth of idiomatic understanding required.  It is no good stepping up to a bus driver, and burbling, "Good day to you, sir, I will buy some ticket, which take me after the central station, and then let me to come back this same place later by this same exact day. Please, sir."  No good at all: he is too accustomed to hearing the right ritual exchange, pitched at the right level of formality and politeness, and briskly expressed using the right vocabulary.  Something like, "Hi, there.  Central station, please.  Super Saver return?  Cheers, mate!"  Except spoken in Austrian German, obviously.  What he certainly doesn't want is to tell you how much your ticket will cost, only for you to gape in incomprehension --  numbers over twenty are weirdly hard to hear, aren't they? -- or, worse, to hand over a 50 euro note for an 80 cent fare.

Luckily, as it happens, every tram and bus driver in Innsbruck -- as in most large European towns --  has a remarkable fluency in English, something that is simply taken for granted by every tourist.  Tellingly, the main tourist bus service is called The Sightseer -- in English.  Its drivers appear to be recruited from a pool of advanced linguists with infinite reserves of patience and tact, who in a country like Britain would have been encouraged into the diplomatic service.

The downside of universally superb infrastructure is that going "off piste", literally or metaphorically, is tricky.  Wherever you want to go, there is a maintained path that defines the best route, and getting off the path can be difficult, not to say hair-raising.  It's like walking along one of those boardwalks that lead through a fenland nature reserve to the observation hides. Off the path, chaos reigns, and nature runs riot.  As a photographer, wanting to find a better place to stand (the good old "foot zoom") is innate, but in a landscape where a false step or getting lost can be life-threatening, this needs a certain degree of care.  Nobody fences off pits and precipices when a perfectly good and well-signed path exists that carefully avoids them.

To a seasoned British rambler -- used to "public footpaths" that have been lost in undergrowth, ploughed up, fenced off with barbed wire or grazed away by aggressive livestock, and which need military-level map-reading skills to follow -- it is quite amusing to see a party of euro-hikers, all kitted out with heavy boots, three-quarter leggings, knapsacks and the obligatory paired trekking poles, proceeding up a waymarked gravelled path that would not disgrace a National Trust property in Berkshire, and certainly would not challenge a three-year-old child in flip-flops.  Things are so clearly laid out and colour-coded that people can wander off into the mountains clutching one of those 3-D bird's eye views of the area with little painted trees and dwellings, an approximation more like a pirate's treasure map than a 25000-scale Ordnance Survey map, without which we would not even leave the carpark for a pee, in Britain, with any confidence of returning safely before nightfall.

Talking of walking and inadequate vocabulary, I had a curious conversation one morning with the owner of the hotel I was staying in.  She had seen me on TV the previous evening, and came over to my breakfast table to express her delight at accommodating a media celebrity, and -- as people will -- to share her thoughts on photography and landscape.  She recommended various local scenic routes, and went on to praise the benefits of trekking poles.  I'm afraid at that point I retreated into "Really?  Right ...  Right...", not least because I couldn't quite understand what she was saying.  Her "cross" (Kreuz) kept coming up a lot, and how her Trekkingstöcke helped her with it.  Was she a devout Christian rambler?  Did she have a particular burden, physical or metaphysical, which it was her cross to bear?  Perhaps she had helped carry one of those ubiquitous wayside calvaries up a mountain?

My non-committal phatic noises saw me through, but I grabbed my dictionary as soon as I got back to my room. It turns out that das Kreuz, as well as its primary meaning of "cross", also means "the small of one's back".  Really? Right!


Struan said...

Could she have been complaining about her knees? The cruciate ligaments in the knee are a) easily damaged and b) helped by using trekking poles.

I use one or a pair of poles as stabilisers, like outriggers. They dramatically reduce the amount of work my knees have to do when crossing rough ground.

I like the Claude glasses for drivers.

Mike C. said...

Not impossible, I suppose.

I do understand the theory of the double poles, but so far have stuck to a single with a "walking stick" handle. They still look ridiculous to me, but I concede they're a damn sight more stylish than a zimmer frame.

Yes, those mirrors turn up at most places where the train/tram crosses a road (no barriers, of course) and I became v. interested in the quality of the reflected image.


Zouk Delors said...

Off- piste
Clearly, what the Austrians lack is access to reams of orange safety-netting.

I heard a great story on the radio recently about immigrant bus-drivers in Glasgow who were given special courses in the local dialect by one of the native drivers so they could, despite their generally good English, understand passengers saying things like, "Two tae tha toon*" etc.

*Two to the town

Mike C. said...

Excellent point, though the inevitable safety netting post will be forthcoming. Man, I did have to look for it, though...