I arrived at New Zulland a hear ago and basically I've spent this ear perfecting my English. I'm not claiming victory, yeat, but I'm progressing.
Before arriving I thought my English was not all that perfect but that I would be able to manage. Very sun I realized I was a little but over confident. After leaving our suitcases in the hotel, that very furst day of our arrival here in Dunedin, we immediately headed for George Street to get a feel of the streets and by some postcards. The kind of postcards you send home telling your family how amazingly beautiful Nu Zeeland is (and not telling them you are about to bury your life in the most lost hamlet on earth).
I love animals postcards, especially ones with elephants, hippos or rhinos. But they don't have any of them. So, I picked a pair of Keas, a Moa and a Pukeko and took all my burds to the counter of that store. It was my first contact in this country and I'll never forget it because the shop lady mistook me for a friend of hers.
“Hi dear, how have you been luv?” she asked. “How's your day been so far?” I was about to say that she was mistaking me for someone else but I wasn't given time. “What a lovely day, isn't ut?” I am from Portugal where a beautiful day isn't a cloudy, cold, wet and sad morning, but I kept my mouth shot, shat, shet, shi whatever. I didn't know then, but I had a year ahead of me to adjust my Mediterranean weather standards. Anyway, I didn't say anything because, to be honest, I was absolutely afraid of speaking, and by smiling and nodding I was expecting not to be noticed. There's nothing wrong about being a foreigner; it's just that, if I had a chance to choose, I'd prefer to be unnoticed. Butt in those first days it was difficult two remain unnoticed. Everything was new or different. Driving on the left seemed strange, but real weird was seeing people do it barefooted. I didn't even know that you were supposed to slip your card in the eftpos yourself, for example, and that shop lady immediately noticed it.
“You are nut from here, are you?” she asked. She wanted to know everything, and I explained it to her, the best I could. That we were not tourists, that we came to live here for a while, and that, as a matter of fact, we had arrived that some day.
“So, you came here to die?” she asked.
“Well, we came yesterday, we had a stop at Auckland...and uh...maybe we'll stay for a while...”
“You'll enjoy it” she said, scanning the postcards. Enjoy our death? I didn't reply because by then I suspected that maybe there was something wrong with my English.
“I see you love burds” she said.
“Any kind of animals on postcards...elephants...” I said, just to practice.
“We have a whole section of shups postcards, over there. Did you see them?”
I had spent a lot of time browsing the postcards section looking for an elephant but I didn't see any shups. You need to know what you are looking for in order to find it, and obviously I had a lot to learn about local fauna.
“If you love animals, you need to visit my cousin's pit shop just across the street” she said pointing out the window.
“Pit shop, like cats and dogs. She has pits of all kind. Even pugs”
“PUGS, HOINK HOINK".
Sorry is kind of a magical word, like abracadabra, it triggers a spell or something. Whenever I say “sorry?” people immediately take me for a retarded deaf. Its like an automatic response hard wired in people's brains. They don't rephrase what they said; they just repeat it, almost in the some way except WITH OPEN MOUTH IN SLOW MOTION TO YOU UNDERSTAND ME. But that day was my first time I was taken for an handicap and I still wasn't used to it.
--PUGS DIRTY ANIMALS YOU EAT HOINK HOINK?
I understood her butt from that day on my faith in my English was severely damaged. Within my first week I was given a diagnostic by most people I mat. Mut, mit, mot... what du fack. My vocabulary wasn't that bad; my grammar was more or less understandable; nothing wrong with my consonants; my main problem were the vowels. That's where you need to work, your vowels, people told me.
It's not easy to work your vowels. If you need vocabulary you use a dictionary; if you need grammar you can get it through a handbook. But how do you study vowels? You need to experiment by trial and error in the real world; there is no easy way around it. So I bought this Berlitz CD that teaches you the phonetic alphabet. It was a really good investment in my education. I spent the next two months studying it, practicing the signs, playing the CD and listening carefully again and again. After these two months of intensive study I had to assess my progress. First I thought of practicing with a couple of friends, but you know how kiwis are, they are so kind and friendly that they would never tell you the truth, that your English is barely understandable. I had to find someone with an objective approach, someone who wouldn't allow their feelings to interfere with their judgment. And I found her, the person to practice with, in a quite unexpected way.
For some red tape reason I never understood our energy was cut off. Suddenly I was alone at home, in a cold and foreign country, without light, heating and... god: Internet! It's a frightening experience I don't wish upon even my worst enemies. In normal circumstances I would expect my wife to solve this kind of minor problem, but my wife was in Portugal with her cell phone turned off, sleeping, as always when I needed her. So, I pulled myself together and prepared to pick up the phone and call the energy company.
At first I thought of telling them that I had a kidney transplant and that my life was dependent of a dialysis machine, but my English was not good enough. Besides, I was beginning to know kiwi people and I was sure they would never turn my energy on, never ever. Instead, they would send an ambulance, a firefighters squadron to kick the door down and a police patrol to clear the way. And a crew of television reporters just to screw up the energy companies once again.
I new I couldn't be able to improvise so I wrote a draft of what I needed to say. I had to check my Berlitz phonetic CD a couple of times but after about an hour I came up with this.
“Hellϴ. I дm yϴur cuΣtϴmer number 7479083 дnd my energy wдΣ turned ϴff. PleдΣe turn it bдck on. /U/rgent. ThдnkΣ”
I read it aloud several times and it sounded really good. With a mix of different accents, half Scottish, half Namibian, with a slight touch of Trinitarian perhaps, but definitely English.
I picked up the phone and I dialed the number, my heart drumming in my chest like I was about to propose to the first clerck that would answer the phone. It was really a relief to realize that I had to do it through a telephone menu. I used to hate those menus. They always reserve the first numbers to sell you things. “If you want to sign a contract with us: press one. If you need to increase your energy allowance: press two. If you want to buy this company for half a billion dollars: press three.” If you need to solve a problem you'll be waiting until nine, and after you press your option they offer you a new menu for which you'll need the nineth choice, and this process continues at least nine times in a row. In the middle of the process you begin to wonder if you are in the right menu because you are not sure if you have a “normal basic plan” or a “ simple residential plan”. After spending an hour in this “rapid automated service” you decide to press five to talk with a real person but they have a record telling you thanks very much for choosing personalized service, you're phone call will be attended in... 47 minutes and a Bach fugue... 43 minutes and a cantata... 39 minutes and a Bradenburg concert just to calm you down.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, someone, a real person I thought, spoke on the line. A woman, with a very sweet and very calm voice, by the way. She greeted me, apologized for the time I've been wasting, and asked me if the energy was cut off to die. After studying my Berlitz stuff I understand very well that she meant to say /Єİ/ and I politely said “Yes”.
--Could you repeat it please?
--Could you repeat it please?
--Could you repeat it please?
--Yës, yæs, yœs, yǼs y∆s fΩck YYYЖЗЖЗыёψλμΣSSSS.
No way. I gave up. After that I decided to go to a cybercafe and write them an email. But, this is my second problem with English, I've got a problem with the Word Processor's spell checking function. The Berlitz method confused me so much that buy no I am not sure anymore how the vowels are spelled. And Word just assumes that I no what I am doing!
I was in my way two town when suddenly, seeing these car vanity plates all around, a brilliant idea came up to my mind. Yes! Eureka: I'm a genius! I was going to write to them in leet! You probably know what leet is, 1337. It's just that: you write letters with numbers, et voila. That was the answer to all my problems. I sat at the cafe, and for the first time in my life, I wrote fluently in English. Oh man, I emptied my soul, I felt like I was flying.
D34r M4d4m 0f th3 ph0n3.
Th4nk y0u v3ry much. Y0u h4v3 4 v3ry b34ut1ful v01c3 but y0u 4r3 n0t g00d 4t l1st3n1ng, l3t m3 t3ll y0u. N3xt t1m3 p4y m0r3 4tt3nt10n t0 wh4t y0ur cust0m3rs 4r3 try1ng t0 t3ll y0u b3c4us3 1t m4y b3 1mp0rt4nt. 1 Kn0w y0u ar3 a g00d p3rs0n, judg1ng buy y0ur v01c3, but y0u n33d t0 t3ll y0ur b0ss3s t0 b3 m0r3 c4r3ful 4b0ut cutt1ng 0ff th3 3n3rgy. M4ny p30pl3 h4v3 4rtific14l lungs in th31r h0m3s. 4nd 3l3ctr1c4l k1dn3ys 4nd 3l3ctr0n1c l3gs, f0r 3x4mpl3, y0u n3v3r kn0w. 0n3 0f th3s3 d4ys y0u m4y cut 0ff th3 3n3rgy 0f a guy w1th 4 bi0nic 4rm 4nd h3 1s g01ng t0 v1s1t y0u 4nd d3str0y y0ur 0ff1c3s 4nd y0ur c0mput3rs, f0r 1nst4nc3. Y0u n33d t0 b3 c4r3ful w1th th0s3 guys. Pl34s3 put b4ck my 3n3rgy 0n. Th4nks.
Thanks to Caitlin Chew. She even corrected my lee7!