Strange language experiencesAugust 21, 2009
Every so often, one needs to go off-island – to explore, reconnect with the rest of the world, reflect and rejuvenate. I’m back in Bali after a two-week sojourn to Lithuania – the land of my parents. It was more of a pilgrimage really. I wasn’t born there – I was sort of dropped in transit through Germany on the way to Australia more years ago than I care to admit.
Lithuania is about 11 times the size of Bali, but with the same population. As in Bali, the people are fun-loving and friendly, the beer is excellent and the women are beautiful. Did I mention the beer is excellent? There are over 40 varieties of local beer and all of them sell extremely well. Also as in Bali, there is a rich cultural heritage that spiritually sustains the inhabitants. Particularly in rural villages, there is a banjar-like culture that provides support and security.
Despite being at a lattitude where the sun rises at 4:30am and sets at 10:30pm, even near the end of summer, it was still surprisingly warm in August. Mind you, everything is relative – the locals were gasping in the 27 degree ‘heatwave’ and looking at me as if I had lost my mind when I put on my jacket for the ‘cool’ 17 degree evenings. When you are used to Winters of minus 30 degrees, I guess anything above freezing seems warm …
Luckily, my Lithuanian is fluent, unlike the crimes I commit against Bahasa in Bali. (My latest linguistic transgression at a restaurant here – “Saya mau banjar” instead of “Saya mau bayar” ). Asking for a village instead of the bill is guaranteed to get you strange looks. And that was only a day after asking for an “es kepala”. I still reckon ‘iced cranium’ sounds like ‘iced coconut’ in Indonesian …
Anyway, language fluency, like temperature, is a relative term as well – I learned my Lithuanian from my parents, who left the old country a long time ago. People thought I was a local until I dropped words into the conversation that have not been in use for 60 years. “Have you come here in a time machine?” was one response to my witty repartee …
At a restaurant I tried all five words I know for ‘toilet’ without the waiter showing a glimmer of comprehension. After an embarrassing pantomime act (please don’t ask me to demonstrate), he asked, in perfect English, “oh, do you need to use the toilet?” A perfect example of how even one of the oldest languages in the world – not dissimilar to Sanskrit – grows, borrows and evolves in response to globalisation.
More language difficulties also cropped up in Germany on the way back. The immigration officer scrutinising my passport and noticing that I was born in Germany, commenced a rapid-fire interrogation in German (which I do not speak).
Officer: Sprechen sie Deutch?
Officer: (accusingly) You chust did!
To my consternation, the grilling continued in German until he finally muttered something about my disrespectful refusal to speak the language. I knew I shouldn’t have fuelled his suspicions by departing with a polite “danke schon”, but I just couldn’t help myself.
So after nearly three weeks of speaking practically nothing but Lithuanian, I’m back in Bali – and guess what? I’ve forgotten most of the pitiful amount of Bahasa accumulated in the previous two months! Never mind, I’ll just have to go out and order a refreshing iced cranium and ask for the village at the end.
At least I can still say Bintang …