My first day of solitary travelling and already I am on my fourth train; the Belgian countryside is rolling past the window; cars are driving on the right and I am starting to feel hungry. All of which means that pretty soon I am going to have to find the restaurant car and speak French. Alright it’s not that big a thing but I confess I’m not good at this – I blame my fourth year French teacher who delighted in pouring sarcasm on our schoolboy accents, leaving me with a distinct lack of confidence with the French language.
I have a theory that you speak a language best when you adopt the national character – something I have witnessed in practice as I have watched bi-lingual British friends morphing before my eyes into pouting, shrugging Frenchmen or tactile Italians. Maybe I was never meant to be French, or Belgian either for that matter.
Now Russian on the other hand, I think I could learn to enjoy – for a start I love Russian accents and have spent quite a bit of time practising my own around the house with phrases like “do you play games Mr Bond?” and “don’t move, I’ve got the girl”.
Clearly however, this is not going to be enough to get me by in Moscow and, therefore, I took the precaution of consulting the iTunes apps store before I left in search of a Russian phrase book which is where I found an intriguing little app called the Russian word pad. The idea is that it presents you with a list of the 90 or so most common words and phrases in Russian that can be linked together to form whole sentences which the iPhone will then flawlessly speak on your behalf.
I have amused myself with this gadget for a good half hour and, with much schoolboy sniggering have managed to make it say “I wish to drink your bathwater” and “does this dentist go to Vladivostok?” This does, however, leave me feeling a little uneasy. For a start I actually have no idea what this thing is really saying and, as Monty Python pointed out some years ago, the bond of trust between phrase book writers and their readers could be easily and sadistically betrayed.
More importantly, at the risk of sounding like I am aged 190, there is something deeply disrespectful about this speaking device. Nothing really says ‘I couldn’t be arsed to learn your language’ like an iPhone app and I wonder if we have reached the point where the pinnacle of technical achievement would be to insulate us from the rest of the world to the point where we really don’t notice it.
All of which leaves me feeling a more resolved than ever to be a bit more enterprising with my use of local languages on this trip. So I will dump the word pad in favour of a more traditional phrase book and, in meantime head for the buffet car for ‘un croque monsieur s’il vous plait’ – although I have a sneaking suspicion that I am now in Germany.