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Sometimes nodding isn’t enough

Friday February 23, 2007

Tim Stannard

?Put the groundsheet down there! No! Not that! The groundsheet. There!? Alicia was starting to get angry. ?Then bring your half to me. No! I said the groundsheet!? Really rather angry now. ?Right. Fold it and wrap the tent pegs up with the rest of the canvas. No! THAT?S NOT THE GROUNDSHEET!?

Alicia threw everything to the floor in exasperation and started to bang her head against the nearest tree, regretting the day she foolishly invited the English simpleton on the camping trip. In response, all I could do was stare at her with my head cocked to one side, like a bewildered Labrador that had just been handed a Pot Noodle and kettle for its dinner and told to get on with it.

It wasn?t that I?d never been camping before. I?d done Glastonbury. Once. The problem was that I was in the middle of a baking hot Andalusian campsite and hadn?t the faintest idea of what was been yelled at me in Spanish at an ever-increasing volume. You see, groundsheet, wrap, and tent pegs had not yet formed part of my day-to-day vocabulary.

For all those who have ever lived abroad, this is an all-too-familiar situation. Even if you have a reasonable grasp of the local lingo, it just takes the odd obscure word or bit of technical jargon to crop up in a conversation to transform a normally rapier-like wit into a lobotomised bumpkin.

In my case, I can get by ? or at least pretend to ? on most occasions. I can proudly gibber away with the locals about all manner of topics, like which of the latest Big Brother contestants deserves to be waterboarded, to whether the local news reader has had her boobs done.

Even when I have no idea of what is being said to me, I?m well versed in the traditional bluffing tactic of nodding your head in agreement and grinning like a loon. Then again, that hasn?t always been the best idea.

?So. We?re just back from the clinic. My mother has been diagnosed with one of those flesh-eating viruses.?

?Really! How nice!? Smile. Nod.

?They say that in just 36 hours there?ll be nothing left of her to bury except her fillings.?

?That?s great!? Bigger smile. More nodding.

No. It?s those moments in life when you have to face the big, scary, outside world that really cause the headaches. Those times when blagging shamelessly simply won?t cut the mustard. Those times when you have to explain to a plumber that your boiler?s overflow sprocket pipe is sounding a little gurgly.

Over several years of the above hassle and humiliation, I have been subconsciously creating a danger list of routine transactions that can transform into terrifying quagmires. Dealings with call centres sit proudly at the top of the chart. These can often be so traumatic that a bout of shadow boxing and watching of the ?Show me the Money!? scene from Jerry Maguire are required to boost testosterone levels.

The major problem with call centres is that it?s not easy sounding assertive and commanding in a foreign tongue. Especially when it can take up to 20 minutes for the unfortunate recipient of your complaint to work through your rapidly deteriorating accent, simply to decipher your name and account number.

Just below call centres in the Top Five of Fear is anything that involves having to take one of those numbered tickets you sometimes get at supermarket cheese counters. Also there is talking to old people, getting a haircut or ordering a missing part from Ikea.

I?m sure that even hotshot UN translators would be scratching their heads in confusion if tasked with asking for a ?quarter-inch flunge bolt that?s missing from my Fleuhstadt bedside table? from the customer service department.

Despite the obvious drawbacks of spending at least 25% of your life looking like a clueless buffoon, there are some occasions when not having a complete grasp of what is going on around you can be liberating. Riding on public transport is significantly more pleasant when you can block out your fellow passengers wittering away to each other or into their phones.

And what better way to avoid being asked to do anything, at anytime, by anyone, when people know it requires half an hour of vigorous hand gestures just to get across the general concept of what is needed of you.

So what is to be done during those troubling times, when you are as helpless as a kitten facing a firing squad? Aside from preparing for each engagement as one might do for an exam, or ensuring that a dictionary the size of a sofa is always on hand ? not a lot. The best approach is just to keep cool, keep nodding, but most of all, keep smiling.

Inspired? If this strikes a chord with you, why don't you share your experiences with other Guardian Abroad readers? Visit our talkboards and spark up a conversation. Or if you're interested in submitting an article, look at our editorial policy to find out how.

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