Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An Olympian language-barrier story

I love the Olympics, and I'm glad to begin this new blog for The Charlotte Observer on the same day as the new debuts.

This blog will run throughout the month of August and will be updated daily -- often several times a day during the Summer Games themselves. My objective will be to entertain and inform you about one of the greatest spectacles around, and for my money still one of the purest representations of sport.

Particularly, I will concentrate on Olympic athletes from the Carolinas.

I'm not in Beijing yet -- that won't happen until early next week, when I fly to China for the first time. I'll talk about the assignment in more detail later. For now, though, to get this blog warmed up, let me tell you a story about one of the three previous Olympics I've covered. This was in 2004, in Greece.

On one of my first days in the country, I was looking for a restroom at a subway station in Athens and growing frustrated that it seemed so hard to find. How could there not be a restroom in a subway? That’d be like not having one in the Charlotte airport.

So I approached three Greek security guards – two men and one woman – for help. Did they speak English, I asked? Well, a little, they said.

For some reason, this just made me talk louder. And slower.

"I'm....looking....for....a...... REST-A-ROOM!" I said. I was a bit embarrassed to try to also pantomime what I needed due to the female security guard.

“Rest-au-room?” said the one man who had the best English of the three. “Ahhhhh, rest-au-room!!! What kind of food you think you want? Greek food? American food?”

“No, no!!” I said. “Restroom. Bathroom.... W.C.... Bano!!!”

The three security guards consulted each other in Greek for about 30 seconds, talking fast and furiously. Then they broke the huddle and looked at me again.

“Can you give an example, please?” the female guard asked.

What do you say to that? I just told them my need for a restroom had magically disappeared, thanked them and jumped onto the subway.

P.S. I heard from many people after that that the magic international word is “toilet,” which most people understand no matter where they’re from. Hopefully, that’s going to work in Chinese.


Pat & Bill said...

This story presents the case for a planned international language, sauch as Esperanto.

Take a look at

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