Sunday Times - - Accidental Tourist - SUE DE GROOT Do you have a funny or quirky story about your trav­els? Send 600 words to trav­el­[email protected]­day­ and in­clude a re­cent photo of your­self for pub­li­ca­tion with the col­umn.

Travel broad­ens the mind, so they say. It also broad­ens the hips, if you be­lieve that the point of trav­el­ling is to taste ev­ery­thing a new coun­try has to of­fer.

(Of course that’s the point of trav­el­ling, and you can’t taste a new thing only once; you need to try it at least, oh, seven or eight times, just to make sure it re­ally is as good or bad as you thought it was.)

Speak­ing of hips, did you know whales go through menopause? I read this in one of those “ac­cord­ing to a study” news re­ports. The sam­ple con­sisted of a hand­ful of fe­male whales, who were all dead at the time, but that didn’t stop the sci­en­tists from com­ing to the con­clu­sion that lady whales carry on liv­ing af­ter their child­bear­ing days are done be­cause their knowl­edge of where to find food is of great ben­e­fit to younger mem­bers of the species.

Thank heav­ens for old aunty whales or the young ones might never know that plank­ton lives on the sur­face of the ocean.

I won­der if menopausal whales put on weight and suf­fer from mood swings. I can just hear them: “It’s up there, you gorm­less calf. Up, I said, up!”

But let’s get back to travel. An­other thing it broad­ens is one’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of lan­guage. I don’t mean the smat­ter­ing of for­eign words that one picks up while trav­el­ling – it is es­sen­tial to know how to say please, thank you, and do you have this in an­other size – I mean a wider un­der­stand­ing of English and its nu­ances.

English speak­ers are guilty of many sins. One is the as­sump­tion that every­one ev­ery­where speaks some sem­blance of English and there is there­fore no need for us to learn any­one else’s lan­guage. An­other is the snob­bery that leads us to laugh at what we con­sider mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tions.

Travel may not cure us of the first prej­u­dice but it does help a bit with the sec­ond. If you want to or­der food in a coun­try where words are pro­nounced dif­fer­ently from the way they are in your world, you’d bet­ter learn to speak like the lo­cals or go hun­gry. Try or­der­ing “gwock­amole” in­stead of “wa-ka-mo-leh” in any Span­ish-speak­ing coun­try and you might be of­fered a stand-up com­edy gig in­stead of mashed av­o­cado.

Lin­guists say our first lan­guage shapes the way we pro­nounce vow­els and con­so­nants. This, in turn, af­fects the way we speak in other lan­guages. Some Span­ish speak­ers, for in­stance, have trou­ble with the let­ter “v”. I once met a Spaniard on a train in Italy. Her English was min­i­mal, which is to say it was bet­ter than my Span­ish, but we man­aged to con­verse for miles about the olive trees (“beau­ti­ful”), the vine­yards (“so beau­ti­ful”), the weather (“re­ally beau­ti­ful”) and the food (“ah”).

Af­ter a few hours of this, my new friend fixed me with an in­tense gaze and asked: “Have you many trou­bles?”

As one of­ten does with strangers on a train, I took the op­por­tu­nity to un­bur­den my­self of all the things that cause me pain, from mis­placed apos­tro­phes to the un­suit­abil­ity of my shoes to the fate of baby whales who don’t know where the plank­ton lives.

My new Span­ish friend took in my litany of un­hap­pi­ness with a sym­pa­thetic ex­pres­sion. When I paused to draw breath she said: “What I mean is, to what places have you been?”

She’d been ask­ing about my trav­els, not my trou­bles. Still, I felt much bet­ter.

Speak­ing of Spain, the news re­port about menopausal whales ap­peared on the same day as an item about a man who’d been in­jured dur­ing the run­ning of the balls.

That’s right: balls, not bulls.

Res­i­dents of the Span­ish vil­lage of Mataelpino refuse to run with bulls as they do in Pam­plona, be­cause it is too dan­ger­ous for the hu­mans and too cruel to the bulls. In­stead they use gi­ant balls made of resin, which weigh about 250kg each. Once things get rolling, these big balls are faster than a hun­gry baby whale speed­ing to­wards plank­ton. They can cause se­ri­ous harm to the peo­ple try­ing to out­run them.

So much for balls be­ing safer than bulls. If the Spaniards are so keen on play­ing the vowel-sub­sti­tu­tion game, maybe next year they should try the run­ning of the bills. In this ver­sion, the par­tic­i­pants sit down to­gether for a 12-course lunch. When the ref­eree calls for the bill, the din­ers jump up and run as fast as they can. Last one to reach the fin­ish line pays for every­one.

On sec­ond thought, I hope the run­ning of the bills doesn’t catch on. The stam­pede that would en­sue once money was at stake would prob­a­bly in­flict more in­juries than bulls and balls com­bined. Not to men­tion all that slip­ping on vomit in cob­ble­stoned streets.

Per­haps the safest way for­ward would be to adopt Span­ish pro­nun­ci­a­tion and run with voles in­stead.


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