The unexpected redhead and her deer

January 23, 2013 at 11:38 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

I once wrote a story about a woman with a ventriloquist’s dummy on her lap.

She knew she belonged in the circus somewhere, but her audition as the knife thrower’s wench hadn’t gone so well. And the less we say about the elephants, the better.

I printed out photos of vintage ventriloquist dummies and stuck them to the walls surrounding my writing desk. This was not a good idea. Having eyes follow you around a room is less disconcerting when it’s a poster of Brigitte Bardot than when it’s, say, this little feller, and I think you’d agree.

For Bless, set in Reykjavik, I needed some music to accompany my steps down to the harbour to watch my first Arctic sunrise. And for two weeks, I found myself humming an eerie Icelandic cover version of ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ every time I brushed my teeth.

For Splinter, I rang my Dad to ask what type of rifle one would use to shoot a kangaroo, and had anatomical diagrams of them, from their rostral to their caudal, laid out on my desk. I think he still wonders if I’m going to ask him to take me out hunting one night, despite twenty years of vegetarianism.

I’ve needed to know how to call someone a ‘dirty pig’ in Flemish, how to propose a toast in Swedish, ask someone to ‘pick a card’ in Estonian, and how to break hearts in half in Czech.

I wrote a story about being mistaken for a member of an Eastern European reality TV show in a bar in Vilnius, I like your deer’s moustache, and other Lithuanian tales. In it I thought it necessary to use the phrase ‘Is your deer vicious?’, for reasons that I’m pretty sure made sense at the time. When it was recorded for performance on American radio and the producer asked me for advice on how to pronounce it, I had to tell him ‘I have no idea, I don’t actually speak Lithuanian…never even been there, in fact.’ He was surprised, and asked ‘You mean, you made the whole story up?’ I was somewhat taken aback; I’d thought that was my job.

We’re only three weeks into 2013 but the searches I’ve typed into Google already include:

–          Does a mandrake scream when you pick it?

–          How many bones are in a rib cage?

–          What’s the nearest psychiatric hospital to Cunnamulla?

–          How do you make a voodoo gris-gris charm?

–          Which Nick Cave songs mention snow?

–          Were witches burned or beheaded in medieval Brussels?

–          What’s the phobia name for ‘fear of one’s reflection’?

–          What are the symptoms of belladonna poisoning?

–          Do redheads really have a higher pain threshold?

Ok, so that last one was for personal interest – I read it in a newspaper today and was curious. That said, it’s bound to end up in a story of mine somewhere.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve left a character stretched out in a paddock in an outback Australian town, deciding whether or not to pick some datura. I’m about to hit the two thousand word mark, and have no idea yet how it ends. Bliss!

And in case you’re wondering about the Lithuanian for ‘Is your deer vicious?’, should you ever find yourself in dire straits with a woodland creature in the Baltics, try asking ‘Ar jūsų elnias piktas?’

It could happen, you know. Best be prepared.

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If you need to hug reindeer…

March 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I collect phrasebooks.

I also collect red shoes, snake tattoos, and musician ex-boyfriends, but that’s a whole different story.

Matt Burke Photography

I was fifteen when I found a 1967 edition of ‘Teach Yourself Norwegian’ in a secondhand bookstore. Always drawn to the exotic words of snowy lands, I taught myself how to order black coffee, croon endearments to reindeer, and ask for a lift to Sweden.

Then, on page 147, the author was apparently compelled to teach me ‘You will be shot at dawn.’

Hmm, curious.

A few pages further, it read ‘If you continue, I will shriek loudly!’ (Varer det stort lenger, skriker jeg høyt!), and the enigmatic  ‘The first thing I saw was a pig’ (Det første jeg så, var en gris).

Really, what kind of holidays did they have in the sixties?!

All it took for a word wench like myself was that one intriguing spark, and my collection began to grow. I can’t pass a secondhand bookstore without scanning its shelves for more quirky old phrasebooks and their gems, and now I have the joys of the internet as well, I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon.

How could I resist, with treasures such as these?

* I don’t mind watching, but I’d rather not join in (No me importa mirar, pero prefiero no participar) – Spanish

* My hedgehog is not stupid! (Min igelkott är inte dum!) – Swedish

* Je suis desolé de vous quitter, mais je dois acheter un chapeau (I am sorry I have to leave you, but I must buy a hat) – French

* Oho! Tota noin … Eihän se vaa ollu’ sun ajokoira? (I’m awfully sorry … was that your hound?) – Finnish

* Nár fhág sé a chlaíomh ar an mbord? (Didn’t he leave his sword on the table?) – Irish

While it’s entirely possible I spend far too much time diving into dictionaries and chuckling at the sheer magic of words, who hasn’t been in a situation where you’ve looked around and thought, damn, wish I knew how to say I want to hug that squirrel in Esperanto? And because of course you now need to know, it’s Mi volas brakumi tium sciuron.

But my absolute favourite has to go to those glorious Germans, who thoughtfully provided us with this priceless line:

* I am not a conference delegate, nevertheless I would like a penguin (Ich bin kein Mitglied dieser Konferenz, dennoch möchte Ich einen Pinguin).

If you’re anything like me, I bet you’re dying to work that into a conversation.

For more delights like this, try out http://www.bbc.uk.co/languages and http://www.omniglot.language.

 And if you ever get to use them in a real life travel context, by all means, let me know!

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