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Saturday, July 24, 2010

The talking buses of L.A.

One of the most embarrassing moments in my life, and there have been many, occurred many tears ago in the Welsh town of Carmarthen. Back in the day I used to enjoy singing in folk clubs, I don't pretend to be a singer by any means but I've always enjoyed the folk genre. On one occasion I was invited to MC a folk concert in the above mentioned Carmarthen. The concert was bi-lingual and I didn't think I'd have a problem with that. Welsh is my language after all and I'm fairly profficient in English. I was doing quite well until I introduced a band named "Aberjabber" Remember I'd been switching from Welsh to English all night and I'd been fed a couple of beers. That's my excuse, because instead of introducing "Wales most up and coming band" I introduced "Wales up, and most coming band." In front of 2,000 people.
Words are tricky things and America is a place where it's so easy for the unsuspecting to trip up. There are numerous stories of the British traveller who has got off the plane, having spent at least 12 hours without a cigarette, walking into a bar and asking the bartender if he has fags for sale. or using words like "I could kill for a beer and a fag."
In America it's quite common to meet a man named's short for Randall. However in the rest of the English speaking world "Randy" means "Horny" I have a friend who is an executive director of an advertising company. Yes, his name is Randall, he told me how he went to the airport to meet an Australian businessman, He cheerfully stuck out his hand and said to the man's wife "Hi, I'm Randy." The Australian grinned and replied "Well good for you."
Driving buses in Los Angeles is full of linguistic perils, especially if you are a somwhat friendly sort of bloke, living in a country where "mother" is only half a word. It doesn't help that L.A. is a melting pot of languages and cultures from places I'd only heard about before coming here. My problems are only compounded by accent. At least that is what I'm told. Apparently I have a strong Welsh accent. Never knew about that until I came here. I always thought that I talks proper, like.
Strangely, to me anyway, people get confused by my accent. I have been accused of being German, Czech, even Philipino but the most common mistake is that I'm thought of as Irish. Amongst the Hispanic population I have often been referred to as a "Pince Leprachaun" (The word "Pince" means something like "Goshdarned" but don't use it in case it means something much worse)
However the MTA has come up with a solution. An automatic voice. There's a law in America that bus driver's are supposed to announce the bus stops, that used to be a lot of fun for me and the passengers got quite amused by it as well. Now the buses are hooked up to a satellite system that tells the bus exactly where it is and a robotic voice tells the passengers which stop is coming up next. Cool, it takes a lot of pressure off the driver. There is one thing that no one ever talked about though and it's interesting to watch it play out. Because of the large variety of languages and cultures there is also a large variety in the way street names are pronounced. It is natural to look at a word and pronounce it using your own terms of reference. Now, thanks to modern technology, there is one standard way of pronouncing street names. It's still too early to say but I suspect a subtle shift in L.A. culture. Whether that is good or bad is to be seen but no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
One other thing I have to mention is the light rail that's run by the MTA. It's the only part of the company that has plans for growth. The amusing thing about the trains is not only do they announce the stations that are coming up. They also announce that the trains are leaving the platform with the words "Stand clear the doors are closing." There is a sinister, almost Hitchcockesque, pause between the word "doors" and "are" almost as if something evil is about to be said. The other part I find amusing in my own twisted way is that the message is bi-lingual. English and Spanish. The interesting part is that English is spoken first, by the time the Spanish message is sent the doors have closed and if you didn't understand English then you're S.O.L.
We have a pet, her name is India, my teenage sons have asked me that when their friends are around I should not pat her head and affectionately refer to her as a "Silly bitch" There is no such thing as a female dog, it's a contradiction in terms, but apparently it's just another thing to learn in the linguistic minefield called America.

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