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Strangers in Strange Lands

So, Charlie's off in Japan, and I'm his unlikely surrogate for a week or so. Hi, I'm Hal Duncan, and I'm the poor man's Charles Stross. Or the Charlie Stross's poor man. Or something. I'm certainly jealous as fuck of Charlie's gallivanting to Japan, cause it's probably one of my favourite things about this whole writing gig -- the travel. Whether it's a wee con in Belfast (mmmm, Guinness!) or a huge con in Nantes, meeting your translator in Berlin or Helsinki or wherever, it's always an awesome experience for me. I like culture shock. I like the disconnection. I like being lost and alone among people whose language I barely understand two words of.

I realise I caught the bug at an early age, on holiday with my folks in former Yugoslavia, in a little touristy town outside Dubrovnik, wandering off on my tod and randomly picking a stranger to follow -- not in a creepy stalker way, but just to give a direction to my wanderings. Like, even if they were just going from their house to a shop, still, walking in their path was somehow being more a part of the place than, you know, lying on the beach or traipsing round after a tour guide with my folks. Actually, tell a lie; given my age I probably was pretending to be a secret agent or something, but I do think that's where the first germ of the disease got under my skin.

It really took hold on one of those student interrail journeys, trying to muddle my way around Europe with the piss-poor French that comes with a UK education. Years of travelling with my parents, a holiday or two with a mate -- those were cool, but I decided I really wanted to go it alone, not have to haggle with someone else about where we were going, what we were going to do. So, yeah, in classic would-be boho style I decided to do my own Grandish Tour -- Paris, Rome, Florence, etc. -- on a ticket valid for a month, with money that, of course, lasted for two weeks of youth hostels and student halls. So, OK, I blew most of my dosh in one week in Paris; it was still fucking fantastic.

I remember kinda loving the fact that the guy behind the counter in the Metro completely disdained my insult to his language, and most decidely did not "appreciate the effort." He was a bloke, working his dull daily job, and not interested in linguistically wiping my arse for me. I liked sitting in cafes on my tod, preferably ones with as few anglophone voices as possible, cause when you're a solitary scruff, waitors don't give a fuck about you, but every so often you'll find yourself in some random conversation, like with some middle-aged guy who's worryingly keen to get you to come to his night-club in a part of town you've never heard of. I liked taking the Metro out through neighgbourhoods that looked a little rougher, to St Denis Basilique where I was staying. I liked missing the Metro and being fucking stranded.

That was the clincher, actually. See I didn't know much French, but I did remember the word ferme, so having not quite realised the Metro closed at midnight, when that word came over the tanoy as I made my way to a transfer that wasn't going to happen, I sort of wised up rather quickly to the fact that I was fucked. Sod all money in my pocket, needless to say, a little but... enough for a taxi? Shit, I had no idea. But with not much choice in the matter, I made my way outside, found a taxi rank and stood waiting, hoping that I could find some way to ask a driver what the fare might be.

The fight in the taxi rank was an adventure. The sort of adventure you back away from as quickly as possible, the sort you watch really nervously as two men go at it, then their girlfriends try to separate them, then their girlfriends go at it, and very soon one of them is dragging the other backwards by her hair across the street. O-kay, you think, valiantly waiting, soldiering it out until you get to the front of the queue and the taxi driver gives blank stares at your butchery of his tongue. Can you get the gist of your meaning across? Can you fuck.

But, hey, there's always Shanks's Pony! And you have a map, a map of Paris. OK, so where you're staying is actually off the map, but it's labelled so you know that this road here, exiting the map due north, is headed for where you're staying. And the route you need to take to get there is fairly straightforward. And who the fuck knows how far it is when the scale is in kilometres anyway? It's possibly not advisable, if you find yourself in such a situation and having walked for a number of hours already, to select now as the time to experiment with hitch-hiking, not when the street you make that decision on turns out to be, as you later find out, the heart of the red light district. But it turned out fine. The man who picked me up seemed perfectly nice, and if he was sorely disappointed in getting some halfwit Scottish naif who could do little more than jabber "St Denis Basilique?" at him, instead of the long-haired, leather-jacketed, junkie hustler I might have looked like, well, he didn't show it. Hey, I couldn't tell. Didn't have a scooby what the fuck he was saying.

Granted, when he dropped me off on the edge of Paris, the long stretch of unlit pathless road between the city and the suburb was a little daunting, but with the lights of that suburb in sight, it was at least a straight line through the pitch-black. It only took another hour or so to get three-quarters of the way -- not far now! -- and realise that the pocket of my backpack was unzipped, presumably from when I stuffed the map into it in my Parisian Samaritan's motor. And, oh wait, that was the pocket my passport was in, right?

I think it was then that I decided this was awesome. Seriously. You'd think it was after the two-hour walk halfway back to Paris, the painstaking inch-by-inch trudge with my eyes scouring the grass verge every step. You'd think it was after the excruciating tension of hoping against hope that the passport hadn't fallen out in the car and that I could actually spot the old-style British passport, black as the night itself. You'd think it was after the miracle of actually seeing that tiny white bit for your name on the front, gleaming in the darkness. You'd think it was the blessed relief, the swingback into elation from the adrenalin overload. But, no. Swear to God, a part of me just broke a little as soon as I realised the passport was gone, just surrendered to a joyous relish of the absurdity of the entire fiasco.

I made it back to the student halls I was staying in eventually. Couldn't get into my room because the night porter had no access to the key I'd had to hand in (to get my passport, to change money.) Spent the night on a wooden bench watching a scabby moggy chase creepy-crawlies that weren't quite big enough to be cockroaches, (I convinced myself.) But it didn't really matter. Even at the time, I didn't look at it as a horrendous gruelling experience of When Holidays Go Wrong. And my attitude was nothing to do with any platitudinous bollocks about "if life throws you lemons, make lemonade." Fuck that shit. I just discovered there was something neat about being that stranger in that strange land.

When I got a programming job that involved the odd jaunt abroad to places like Marion in North Carolina, Bursa in Turkey or Odorheiu in Romania, that disease resurfaced. I got stranded in Istanbul once on the way back from Bursa, had to find a cheap-ass hotel for myself on the few Turkish lira I had in my pocket. Loved every second of it. But it's not about the thrill of disaster, so much as it's about the disconnection. One of the things I love about going to foreign cons or visiting publishers are exactly those moments people apologise for -- when you're with a crowd of locals who've relaxed into the craic so much they forget they have this barbarian in their midst who doesn't speak their tongue. Suddenly at some point someone will realise -- shit! you have no idea what we're on about! -- but there's something wonderful about not knowing what's being said, about just soaking up the rhythms and tones and body language. Hazy with jetlag, adrenalin and alcohol, seeing the human interaction stripped of referential meaning, you catch a deeper sense to this strange ballet of sounds and gestures, in a way you can never do when you're immersed in the back-and-forth of words and ideas. And it rocks.

Of course, the most alien languages in my travels I've ever had to deal with are Polish, Hungarian or Turkish; and the strange lands I've been a stranger in have been heavily Westernised if not wholly Western, so I can't help wondering if Charlie's having some real honest-to-God lost-in-translation moments out there in Japan.

Fuck, that makes me so jealous.



Dude, don't swear. Charlie never swears. It's polite company here. Man, you are in so much trouble when he gets back.

Good story, by the way.


The fuck I don't swear, motherfucker! (As Hal can attest.)

The only reason I moderate my natural tone on this blog is because if I swear too much the net nannies may start censoring me, which would be Annoying, as it would reduce my ability to fuck with my readers' heads.


Yeah, that shit don't fly here.


Excellent story, Hal. Sounds suspiciously similar to my experiences doing the InterRail thing many years ago. From my trip I learned that Australian backpackers are the kings of fiddling train tickets and walking into museums and opera houses for free.


After a couple of years in such a situation (e.g. 2 years in Japan) you get a very good feeling for non-verbal communication. Sometimes it nearly feels like telepathy ....


I realised a while back that I actually really don't like travelling. I like seeing new things, I like eating strange foods and visiting historic and beautiful places and most of all I like discovering whole aspects of the world about which I was previously totally ignorant; but the actual travelling, the actual getting from A to B via C, D and F (except on Saturdays, when the bus goes via Y and W, unless it's the off-season when it doesn't run at all, like the day you want to take it) and finding somewhere to stay and walking around and being tired and having to deal with people whose language I don't speak - I hate all that stuff. I'd previously thought this was some kind of grievous character flaw, and that in order to become an Acceptable Human Being I should grit my teeth and do as much travelling as I could stand until I learned to cope.

Having read your story, though, I think I'm A-OK with it.


Japan actually makes an interesting special case on the Westernisation front. The Americans made a determined effort to westernise the country after WWII, but it never really went more than skin-deep. So (in addition to the traditional things that aren't Western at all) you get some things that appear Western on the surface, but function completely differently once you actually go near them.


Ha! Nice story, but the passing mention of Marion, N.C. brought back memories of some big news from those parts many years ago. Google "Marion, N.C. preaching boy." Some young siblings were suspended multiple times from their Marion elementary school in 1988 for yelling bible passages and holy curses at the teachers and other students. I wonder what they are up to now.


This post gave me warm fuzzies. It reassures you as an Anglophone continuing French learner to read about other people's tres affreux francais ( :

Remembering rambling exhaustedly back to the hostel in Turku, Finland at 4am (yay for GPS) . . . .

My best story is not as good as any of yours though. I was outside of the stadium where a big demoparty was being held in Helsinki, having spent several hours at a bonfire after-party in the woods trying strange and in some cases very good alcoholic potables out of the assortment of random bottles and flasks people offered to me. I missed the last train, but the next one would come in an hour or so, at 4 or 5. A very drunk sixteen-year-old came up to me, hearing me talking to my travelling companion in American-accented English, and (in a totally friendly, nonconfrontational, but absolutely baffled way) he said "Ok, you're Americans, right? What is it with these spelling bees? Don't you even know how to spell your own language?"

We had no good answers for him.


Ted, LafinJack, I think Charlie knew the kind of house-sitter he was inviting. Still...

Charlie, I shall endeavor not to single-handedly invoke the ire of the net nannies with my inveterate potty-mouth. Never fucking work, knowing me, but I'll try.


Miles: Heh, yeah, some people love the actual travel and some people just hate it. The quick but hard way to find this out is to make the mistake of traveling with someone on the opposite side of the fence.

JB: My first impression of rural NC was pretty much "every other building a church, and all of them flying an American flag." And one of the other programmers who had a trip there did say that one of the first questions he was asked by one of the factory guys -- in a completely friendly way, right enough -- was, "What church do you go to?" Not "Do you go to church?" but, "What church do you go to?"

Still, I found the folks I was dealing with totally sound, I have to say. Not one person I talked to came across as the stereotypical Bible-thumping redneck, despite the fact that, according to one, that guy who played the banjo in Deliverance stayed just up the road a ways, ("but he don't play no banjo.")

Maybe it's the way culture shock plays off against a sense of people being "the same all over" underneath that -- to some extent, at least. I think that's a large part of what I'm digging on here.


My brother is the traveler in the family and has been in dozens of countries. The most "foreign" place he ever visited, he told me, was Bangalore-- in most other places, whether in the West, in Asia, in Africa or wherever, even if he didn't speak the local language he could at least generally tell what the local people were doing. That woman is having lunch, that guy is shopping, that guy is participating in a religious ceremony.

Not so in Bangalore-- he told me that most of the time, he had no idea what was going on at all.


You might have seen this before...


I am currently half-way through reading Vellum, and it is a lot like visiting a strange country where you don't speak the language. After reading Hal's post, I am going to guess that Vellum is not going to end with, "And they lived happily ever after," but is going to get weirder and more amazing than I can imagine. Wow.


Hah, you think Vellum's strange, Ink is stranger. Things start to cohere somehow in there, though: by the end of Vellum I was scribbling on bits of paper trying to keep track of who was an archetype of what, but by the middle of Ink it had mostly got internalized and I didn't need the paper anymore.

One personal problem I had with Vellum and Ink was that Our Author was obviously very taken with Jack, and he just rubbed me the wrong way. But the entirety of Vellum and the last part of Ink, most especially including everything involving Seamus, is sheer concentrated awesome. (I suspect I don't like the first part of Ink so much purely because it's riffing off a work I haven't read.)

My only real complaint about these mindblowing books is that I felt like I was much too stupid and ill-read to be reading them. (Also that by the end of the last book it became clear that they really didn't have much of a plot. But, my god, what a way to present an anthology. Stunning stuff.)


I also seem to have completely lost the travelling bug at some point in my early 40s - I used to love the randomness and risk of it all but now even the hassle of getting a flight from Gatwick to Edinburgh seems more trouble than its worth (in fact I am rather glad I've lost my passport as now I'll have to take the train which to my mind only counts as travelling if done abroad).

Sleeping at airports or on toilet floors to save the cost of a hotel room, waking up covered in bedbug bites, being shaken down by bribe-hungry Russian militsiya, crazed Greek bus drivers bombing along remote mountain roads - all fill me with profound horror now...


Hal's adventures far, far overshadow mine. Mine are all trifling comparatively. Alas, no Grand Tour nor even a Not So Grand Tour.

My Grayhound bus ventures across America simply imbued me with an appreciation for clean restrooms, gas station coffee, and the fact that released prisoners drool and snore in their sleep less than the rest of us - likely due to the penalties in the prison system for those who hate a loud, snoring cell mate. Also, for smokers, when you get a bus driver who doesn't smoke and who when taking over the bus, declares they have "No sympathy and no stops", there is no hope as you cross the vastness of Wisconsin in mid-winter.

Thanks for the interesting tale though, Hal!


Sigh. Irony is dead.



Irony is dead

More like 'irony is not internet compatible'


Hal @9: I think I understood the spelling bees when I understood the differences in learning languages. English was my second foreign language (first being German), I was 11 at the time. In school classes we of course had books in front of us all the time, and to learn more of the language I picked up the Dragonlance books. This means I learned the language mostly by reading instead of listening as natives tend to do.

So, it took me a long time to understand why spelling English is hard: I learned the words first in written form, so spelling was easy. Relatively. (I misread 'petrification' as 'pertification' for almost ten years.)

And yes, I can very well understand the guy asking about spelling bees - I could've asked the same question at some point, too.

On travelling, I hate it when I don't understand the local language, or at least one of them. I've learned to live with it and try to pick up some phrases before going, but it's still very annoying.


I'm a native English speaker, and I can appreciate the difference between spoken and written language, and why a spelling bee might be a tool for teaching.

But I find the American fascination with them to be a little odd. Is there something that makes US culture hyper-competitive? Is there some not-very-subtle anti-cooperation ethos in US education?

I mentioned it years ago, in another blog, but what is the difference between "Triumph of the Will" and a High School Pep Rally?


Well, you wouldn't get arrested for re-enacting a pep-rally in Germany, or publicly express your appreciation for them, or show them on TV without "guidance". ('cause, you know, the mere sight of Goebbles turns Germans into Nazis, if you don't hold their hands ...)


And with that blog....I've just bought your books. :)



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This page contains a single entry by Hal Duncan published on April 6, 2010 7:20 AM.

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