The Language [car park] Barrier

I’ve done a few unusual travelling things in my life. I’ve kayaked in Maine after singing the entire James Brown back-catalogue at full volume in a minibus of comparative co-worker strangers. I’ve cycled through Paris in rush-hour on a bicycle that looked like it was designed in the 1800’s and manufactured from metals discovered when the periodic table still had only a dozen elements.

I’ve slept in some strange places too. I’ve slept on numerous Greyhound buses surrounded by cast members of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends. I once slept in a little line of English backpackers in Boston airport as the night-cleaners practiced their synchronised hoovering whilst CNN reporters enthusiastically shouted every news story over the information screens like they were connected to the studio with yoghurt pots and string. And that’s before you get to the varied clientele you meet in shared youth hostel dormitories.

There is a common theme when it comes to language though. To an outsider, my galant attitude to languages causes someone to think I still have this Victorian ideal that one can still travel the world with an English passport and battered suitcase Philleas Fogg stylee with an RP accent. Whilst working away under the bonnet is a linguistic sphere like a well-oiled Babel fish. Behind the scenes my brain is fascinated by language but equally infuriated at an upper school which refused to acknowledge someone might need an arts GCSE and a modern language in later life. And so I have set off for Norway, Iceland, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in previous years knowing fewer words than it might conceivably be possible to teach a small siberian hamster of above-average intelligence.

All of this is of absolutely no use in explaining why on a busy Tuesday morning I decided to press the ‘German’ language selector on a car park machine in a busy Parisian hotel. But then what could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot it would seem. The machine read the ticket – the only record that we had ever desposited a car in the car park, and then displayed some nice, friendly Germanic phrase which we took to be ‘please insert your bank card’. I’m not sure whether it was struck with confusionĀ  why a Germanian would have an English bank card, or whether it was wondering why someone would put a bank card into the machine when it had clearly displayed a message about it’s personal theory of time travel.

But it did leave us with a problem.They say a problem shared is a problem halved, but as a French family arrived at the only machine in the car park they proved this is not always the case. In our finest English accents we explained it was broken. Then Sarah remembered she spoke French, and explained what was going on in a much more useful fashion. This was met by some French muttering, some pointing at the screen, and then more muttering featuring which even I could translate: ‘Francais’, ‘Deutch’, and ‘English’ mostly.

Luckily, Pierre from reception was on hand to help us. Pierre was clearly the man for the job, with a name badge proudly displaying the French, German and English flags as his known languages. He perused the machine, and looked worryingly confused. He then turned to us with a look of either profound constipation or that face people make when struggling to find words in a foreign language.

‘Um…’ said Pierre. Decisively.
‘It’s okay, we’re English’, said Sarah. It was clear this was a line Pierre had heard many times before.
‘What does this say?’, asked Pierre, a man with a very formal-looking badge stating his proficiency in German, pointing at a short German phrase on the screen.
‘We don’t know’, apologised Sarah.

The next 30 seconds didn’t need translating, as Pierre showed that universal face everybody makes when they realise they are dealing with imbeciles. To be honest, I don’t blame him. Here in a busy French hotel, he had before him an English couple, freshly sunburnt from their holiday, who were holding up a family of his fellow countrymen by not just breaking a simple machine, but breaking it in a language no one currently involved in the scenario could understand.

‘I will need to send a technician over’, concluded Pierre as he ran away from the mad English people as quickly as possible.

The technician duly arrived, and set about pressing every single button on the machine as forcefully as any man could. I’m sure he knew we’d have tried this ourselves, but he was doing so with an air of authority and determination hitherto lacking in this exchange between man and machine.

Our technician spoke no English at all, and presumably even less German. And so we found ourselves standing in a foreign country with all of our posessions and only means of transport locked in a secure underground car park. Yet the only thought that came into my Guardian-reading mind was ‘what about the dairy?’. We buy our milk from a little dairy called ‘Lucy’s Dairy’. Our milk has pictures of Lucy with one of her herd on the side and we get regular ‘moos letters’ from the cows. Who’d tell them we were stranded in a France, unable to speak German?

Eventually, Pierre gave us a special ticket to get us out of the car park. I did notice, however, that we didn’t get the same sympathetic look he gave the French family who’d been held up just because I’d chosen to press the special ‘display something in German before completely fizzing to a halt’ button.

The ultimate irony was yet to come though. As I we slowly trudged our way down the stairs to the car, embarassed by our failure to use a machine, and the pride in our linguistic skills severly dented we couldn’t help noticing that the barrier in the car park was broken in the open position all along.

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