When Cultural Immersion Goes Wrong
Words Tyson Jopson, Pic by Martin Pilát
Lest we scorn the unenlightened tourist, who glows embarrassingly pink, flails his arms and thinks raising his voice will magically elucidate his words. At least he is honest, and less likely to drown in sewage.
Adonis of the Aegean
‘A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring,’ said English poet Alexander Pope in the 18th century, when folk were curing head lice with generous doses of mercury. Nowadays, we’re more in touch. For instance, I like to learn about a place I’m going to. Well, as much as is necessary to elevate me above the fettered and unlettered holidaymaker: some language, a few buzzwords and enough cultural phrases to imply that I know more than I actually do. God forbid I actually look like a tourist while I’m being one. God, of course, has other ideas for people like me…
Some years ago, I was on a school sports tour to the UK. Our flight path was punctuated by a two-day stopover in Athens. Unlike the British – a recent Skift poll showed that just one in 10 of them make an attempt to learn the local language on holiday – I was going to be all the Greek I could be. I was going to eureka the souvlaki out of those plate-flinging anthropi. On the first morning of our Mediterranean stopover, I burst out of our sea-facing hotel, crossed the cobblestone road and wandered down the beach.
‘Ka-lee-merah!’ (Good morning) I shouted confidently at an old man walking his dog.
‘Ka-lee-merah niaro-agori!’ he responded with a smile.
‘Eenai-mia-oraia-mera-gia-ko- limpi.’ (It’s a good day for a swim).
I’d recited the last line the night before in anticipation of this moment. The old man shouted something back at me in his mother tongue. I didn’t care. I was in! Giddy with Greekness, intoxicated by an intellect in arrears, I scrambled up some nearby rocks and dropped my towel in preparation for an Olympic dive that would wake the gods.
The old man was still yelling words of encouragement behind me, clearly enamoured of my Greekness. I looked down. The water was so clear I could see a school of small dark fish below. They must have come to be a part of this mythical chapter of my life. With a final shout from the old man, I launched myself off the rocks and into the water. A perfect dive.
I emerged, spouting a victorious stream of water from my mouth. I was Adonis of the Aegean.
Two more people had gathered on the rocks, waving wildly at me. I waved back, smiling. Then one of the dark fish breached the surface and swam to congratulate me. As it got closer, I noticed it wasn’t a fish…
It was a poo. I looked around. They were all poos. I was swimming in a gulch of raw sewage. The smell wafted up to my nose and clung to my hair and I realised the people waving from the rocks weren’t actually waving. They were pointing to an open cement pipe leaking metropolitan miasma into the sea.
I dragged my festering, malodorous self back up onto the rocks. The con was up. The bubble was burst. And right then, I envied the nescient tourist asking for directions at every turn; the traveller juggling a phrase book while shouting gibberish at locals; the puzzled moonbagger holding a foreign note up to the sun, trying to work out its value. Callowness may not be pretty, but at least it’s honest and honesty will always find aid. Me? I had learnt too little and only tasted the Pierian spring… and it tasted like shit.
Source: Getaway Blog