I watch him carefully. He stands alone, not far from me. He is waving both arms, with great, flapping sweeps, his hair springing up and down with the motion.

Around me: the others; impassive, pretending to read, yet all the time watching him. Now he turns slightly to one side and crouches - legs bent, body leaning forward, hands like a beggar's claws, fingers upward, as if presenting an object for sale; appealing, jerking spasmodically, violently. I can see the back of his suit collar, ridiculously high above his head, which he is stretching towards us. He makes no sound - just the jerking movements, and his legs like springs, coiling and uncoiling slightly, ready to jump.

I look down at my lap. There it lies - beautiful, shiny, black, freshly cleaned. Ready. My hands are moist. Soon it is time. I wipe them on a white handkerchief. Soon. Soon. I catch a quick glance, from my neighbour. He knows.

I look again at the man in front. He is springing gently up and down on his calves, body straight now. He lifts his right arm, fixes me with his eyes briefly; now I am ready; I lift my black beauty; he makes a long sweeping motion, it ends pointing at me, just as I start blowing, sweet and pure as ever, right on cue, as always.

Language adventures - Some interesting moments with languages

Here are a few interesting moments I have had involving language. Trip to Zadar:

About 1972, while living in Jülich, Germany, we took a holiday trip down to Zadar in Croatia, by car. Sandy was navigating. As we passed Trieste, we knew that the first town in Yugoslavia we would come to was Rijeka, so we looked for signs with that name. We came to a fork in the road, the left one signed with something I don't remember, the right one saying "Fiume". I asked my navigator "which one?". She got flustered, "I don't know! I don't know!". We were getting close to where we had to decide. Then I remembered, the Russian word for River is река (rieka), and in Italian it's fiume; so I took the right road. I always marvelled that my brain dug up those facts just when I needed them.

In Croatia, I used what Russian I knew, knowing that it is fairly close to Hrvatski (Croatian). People smiled and told me how I should have said it in Hrvatski and a good time was had by all. In fact, I learned a fair amount in those two weeks. One day we took a trip down to Split, where there was said to be a beautiful park. We got there, close to where I thought it should be, but I couldn't see where we were to go to see this park. There was a small hut, and out of it came a young woman. I asked in Russian "gde parkje?" (where is the park?) and she answered, "Izvinitje, ja tolko govoryu po russki!", i.e. "Excuse me, I only speak Russian!". Hmm. I didn't pursue the matter.

The Finnugrist

About 1996 I attended an electrochemical symposium in Cluj Napoca, Romania. To get there, I took a plane to Budapest and a train from there to a city called Alba Iulia, which is fairly close to Cluj. Landing in Budapest, a shuttle bus took me into town from the airport, and I wanted to get off near the railway station, but the bus driver only spoke Hungarian, of which I know only a single useless word. A nice lady helped me, who spoke the language. and I got off at the right place. After the symposium, I came back to Budapest and to the airport, and there was the nice lady again. We got talking. She had (if I remember this) a Portuguese mother and a French father. She was going to Copenhagen, as I was, but from there on to Tallin, Estonia. She seemed to speak a fair few languages. We sat in different parts of the plane on the way to Copenhagen, and I mused a bit. She isn't Hungarian but speaks the language, works in Estonia, is clearly an academic... Hmm. As we got off the plane, just as we headed off in different directions, I asked her "Are you a Finnugrist?" She smiled brightly and said "Yes!" and we parted. Interesting people, Funnugrists, strange family of languages, different from all others. I once had some conversations with a Finnugrist, a German. I often wonder how people pick their professions, and I asked him about his. He told me that when he was 11, he picked up the book "Teach Yourself Finnish", and he found it so fascinating that that was it from there on.


Shortly after moving to Denmark in 1978, I attended the Scandinavian Trace Element Analysis conference, held at Vejle. There were delegates from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and an Icelander (who spoke very British English). Talks were given in Danish and Swedish and a few in English, and a lot of people were unhappy. Although Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are closely related, not everyone can understand the others easily. So there was a suggestion that for the next conference, the language should be English. This ruffled a few feathers. One man got up and said passionately "Surely we can all speak Scandinavian!". This is a mythical construct supposed to be intelligible by Danes, Swedes and Norwegians. but in practice Danes just change their words for numbers (some of which take getting used to), and Swedes and Norwegians keep talking their own language. Icelandic is so remote from these three that it's totally foreign, and Finnish is of course even more so, being a Finnugric language, not related at all to the others. Arguments went back and forth, until a Finn politely asked for attention. "I remind you", he said, "that the next conference will be held in Helsinki!". This clinched the matter and English it was to be from then on.

A train trip

A nasty streak came out in me on a train trip from Aarhus to Copenhagen. Sitting opposite me was an elderly couple. The lady was unhappy about something and intermittently beleaguered the bloke with a barrage of excited words. I couldn't understand her but I could hear that she was speaking Hrvatski. Now and then hubby tried to calm her down, saying "Mama, draga Mama..." (Mama, dear Mama). and this went on for the whole trip. As we got out of the train I turned around to them and said "Do svidenije!" (good bye) (should have been "do videnije" but they would have understood me), and walked off. I admit to feeling a little bit evil.

Learning Danish

When we got to Denmark in 1978, we both started, of course, learning the language. It is to a large extent similar to English and especially German, with some quite different words as well. It was fairly easy for me to learn to speak it (with an accent of course, which I haven't eradicated yet after 30+ years) and I was giving lectures in Danish after a few months. What was hard, however, was to learn to understand Danes speaking to each other (they kindly spoke more slowly and clearly to me). Now this process had taken me three months in Italy, after which I could understand them; Italian is pronounced very clearly. Later, while in Brazil for a total of six weeks, I was just before making the breakthrough (Portuguese being similar to Italian). After almost eight months in Denmark, I was still struggling to understand the language, and was getting a bit down about it. I gloomily thought that maybe I was too old to do it again as in Italy (I was 39 at the time). But at about eight months, from one day to the other, something gelled in my brain, and I understood everything. I used to go to the cafeteria for afternoon coffee, and I sat there with a happy smile just listening. The fact is that properly pronounced Danish is very unclear and at first the words seem to all run together, and a lot is left out.

The similarity to German was sometimes a trap. I did fair amount of guessing, and it sometimes went quite wrong. At a Christmas party (the [in]famous "julefrokost") I asked for "butter" (the u pronounced as the oo in "foot"), which caused gleeful laughter "He said butter, har har har!". It is smør, and how was I to guess that?

Bad People

I have several times been warned of people who are dangerous, thieves or just unpleasant. In at least three cases, they turned out quite normal, friendly and helpful.

Before we went to Italy in 1967 my father warned me about the thieves there; they have real schools for thieves there, he told me, so watch out! We were in Milano three months and I hadn't noticed any suspicious people yet. By this time I was good friends with three young blokes in the workshop of the Institute I was working in, so I asked them about this. They told me, not here, they are like that in Southern Italy. We left Milano by train to Germany and in the same compartment as ours there was a family of Southern Italians. Somewhere at a station a conductor came in and told us we had to get out of this train and into another, quickly. We did this, but in the confusion left my camera in the old train. Oh no, those Southern Italians... It turned out that both trains went the same way and both stopped at another station, in Switzerland, ours getting there after the other. As we stopped and looked out, we saw the Italian family all leaning out of their window, waving at us excitedly "Your camera, your camera!" So much for Italian thieves.

Our first stay in the USA was in Buffalo, New York. We went to a few restaurants and after a while I was missing Chinese food, which has always been easy to find in Australia. I checked the phone book and did find one Chinese restaurant in the city. Late one night we drove there. It turned out to be the black part of the city. There might have been a Chinese cook but the staff in the small place was all black. They were surprised to see us, and clearly a bit embarrassed. We sat down, and another (black) couple came in, apparently known to the place. They were also surprised to see us there, and the waiter joked with them, telling them they should sit in the back. The meal wasn't great but it was not bad, and we went home. The next day I told a few people about finding this restaurant, and they were aghast. "What? You went there, at night? You are lucky to be alive!" With all respect, bullshit.

We stayed in Lexington, Kentucky, for a year and a half. There we heard and read stories about the bad hillbillies in the mountains, who hate "foreigners", that is, people not of their own kind, and are liable to shoot them on sight. Very bad and dangerous people. One day we drove there in our "Shuddering Heap", an old Rambler Ambassador, which had a foible of the gear stick (it was a manual shift car, very unusual) getting stuck. This happened just as we were driving up a deserted narrow road, miles from civilisation. What to do? We were stopped. A hillbilly appeared next to us. "Havin' trouble, buddy?" I explained about the stuck gear, and he asked "Got a screw driver?", and I got one out of the back. "Put the hood up", OK, I did this. He applied the screw driver at a strategic point, and the gear stick was free. I thanked him and he walked off. He wasn't even carrying a gun.

I was told that the French are very unfriendly if you don't speak French. In about 1990 or so I went to a meeting in Lyon, to do with the beginnings of unification of chemistry courses in European universities. I was booked into a hotel and had to take the metro from where the airport bus dropped me off. I had no French coins, only notes, and I was at a loss how to get a metro ticket, there not being any ticket office, only a big automat that only took coins. A young man near me asked me whether he could help me, and I explained my problem. "No problem" he said, dug into his pocket for some coins and got me a ticket.

Don't try to tell me about Italian thieves, dangerous hillbillies and blacks or unfriendly Frenchmen.

Weird People

Some years ago, when punks were big, there was a punk festival here in Aarhus (as it is - again - written now). These punks had taken over the forecourt of Huset, a multi-activity building, that is now defunct. They played loud music Saturday afternoon and night, and in the morning there were a number of them around town, looking fearsome in their preferred raggedy black clothes and weird coloured and styled hair, all pretty monstrous. You could be scared of them. I had a couple of encounters with these monsters Saturday morning, a bright sunny day. The first was at the railway station, where I found myself on a collision course with a girl monster - will she shoulder into me? As we got closer, she deviated from her path to avoid me and gave me a beautiful friendly smile. Hmm. Later, two girl monsters were walking along in town, bright green and orange hair. As they passed me, one of them turned to the other and with great joy said "Isn't it lovely sunshine!" (Danes are very happy to see the sun occasionally).

Sunday morning I happened to go past that forecourt, where a punk bloke was cleaning up, all by himself, a big job, as there were great heaps of beer bottles and other garbage. He had his work cut out. I said to him "Have they left you alone with it?" He must have misunderstood me, and he said, almost primly "Well, that was the deal, that we'd clean up afterwards!". Of course.

Nice weird people.


Many years ago, in my early years in Aarhus, I was at a discotheque one night. It was a split-level place and I was on the top level. There I saw an impressive example of power, without violence.

An argument developed at one table; a bloke who was quite drunk, who seemed to think that the couple he was arguing with had something of his. He got more and more heated and at one point picked up a heavy small foot stool and started swinging it around. No one dafred come near him - he was dangerous with that foot stool.

Someone called the bouncer, and I saw him coming, a pleasant looking short but solid fellow, bounding up the few stairs with a slight smile on his face. He simply went up to the drunk and put his hand on his arm, saying a few words I couldn't hear, and the drunk calmed down immediately and allowed himself to be led downstairs and out. No violence was used or needed, but clearly the drunk could see that he had no chance against the bouncer, who seemed to radiate power, very impressive.

Stories written with Thomas

Stories written 1979-81 with Thomas, then 5-8 years old. We had a small front garden at the flat we lived in and had beans and strawberries growing on it, among other plants. We noticed a few small creepy crawlies there, which gave rise to these stories, Thomas (then "Tom John") doing the drawings.