Thursday, October 24, 2013

A “short” “200 meters” is “no problem” because “Who knows? This is Greece.”

In many places I have lived and travelled, I find there to be certain phrases unique to a geographic location which I dread hearing.

When I was in Sierra Leone I remember the phrase, “No problem.”  That is probably my all-time least favorite phrase.  Even today, no matter where I am in the world, if someone says, “No problem” I immediately cringe and wonder whether they are giving me lip service. The culture in Sierra Leone is such that people don’t like to say “No.” So rather than say no to a request they avoid saying yes.  “No problem” doesn’t exactly guarantee the affirmative; it simply implies there is a possibility.  Here’s an example: “Can I get a side of fries with my burger?” “No problem.” The waiter didn’t say fries were impossible, but he also didn’t say fries were available.  If this same question was asked in the U.S. using the resources of the Sierra Leonean waiter the answer would have been, “Fries? HA! We don’t have fries!  We don’t have burgers either.  Really, nothing that is on the menu is here.  I’ll tell you what, here’s some cassava, enjoy it while you can because there is no guarantee we will have that or anything else tomorrow.”  In case you were wondering, yes, I did order a burger with fries.  The waiter told me it was “No problem” and then came back with boiled cassava.  When I asked he said that was the only ingredient they had in the kitchen that day.

I admire the Greeks; they have a very laid back attitude about everything.  Of course, of late all that has gotten them is a $300 billion debt and a lot of resentment from Germany. But the Greeks’ laissez-faire attitude prompted one of my other least favorite expressions, “Who knows? This is Greece.” The “This is Greece” part of the equation is meant as a stand-alone explanation to justify the lack of a real answer (i.e. “Who knows?”).  I remember entering a train station to purchase a ticket, having been told there was a 3 o’clock train.  When I approached the ticket booth I asked when the next train would arrive.  The clerk told me, “Well, one came through yesterday.  And I know there should be another train on Sunday.” Confused I said, “Well, it’s Friday.  Is there a 3 o’clock train today?  Or is there any train scheduled today? Going anywhere?” His response: “Who knows? This is Greece.” The next day I caught a bus.

During the year I lived in London I learned that the British have no concept of distance.  To them everything is 200 meters away, whether it is within arm’s length or on the other side of the globe.  Seriously, ask a Brit, “How far away is the U.S.?” and he would probably tell you, “Jump in the water and start swimming.  You should run right into the Statue of Liberty in about 200 meters.” I remember going to Scotland with a friend, in the middle of a blizzard no less, and wanting to visit Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness, where the monster lives.  We took a bus to the village of Drumnadrochit and then asked directions to the castle.  We were told to follow the road about 200 meters and we couldn’t miss it.  Remember, this was in the middle of a blizzard, so there was snow EVERYWHERE! We walked for what seemed like days and when we got to the castle we saw a sign reading, “The Castle is closed for construction.” Having walked 1.2 miles uphill we were now forced to turn around and head back down to the village, having not seen anything except endless snow and sheep.

Today I identified my least favorite phrase here in Botswana: “short.” Sadly, I am not as smart as I thought I was because it took me a full three months to realize “short” translates into at least five times as long as I would anticipate.  It finally hit me today as I was sitting in a meeting.  I was asked to attend a “short" meeting about hiring an adjunct lecturer.  The meeting was scheduled at 9am and I told my boss that I could attend the meeting since it was supposed to be “short” because I had an appointment with a student at 10.  The student did not show at 10am so I remained in the meeting.  At 11:37 the meeting concluded.  The “short” meeting lasted a full two hours and 37 minutes!
Tomorrow I have another faculty meeting to attend in which I am supposed to introduce myself to the rest of the faculty in my college.  I was told to prepare a “short” statement about myself.  I am debating whether I should abide by the Kelly-approved definition of short and give a two minute overview.  Or should I adhere to Botswana’s “short” introduction?  I will have to give this some serious thought.

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