It was my first full day in the city of Montréal and I was really feeling the chill. In the morning, I had walked the city streets, or more accurately, I had slid the city streets. Or should it be slud? Or sludded perhaps? Come to think of it, the best way to describe what I did was I sludged my way around the city. The sub-zero temperatures had been nicely complemented with a deluge of snow the previous day, all of which now seemed to have turned into a brown, semi-liquefied goo which was oozing into my boots.
I needed a break from the hazards of Montreal’s icy streets, and so I turned my attention to the city’s labyrinth of underground passages that serves to connect many of the more important organs of the city’s central system. This is where I found most of the humans who inhabit the metropolis, scurrying quickly in both directions along the main causeways of the pulsing grid of the evening rush-hour commute. I was, of course, completely bewildered by this gigantic maze of walkways, tunnels and stairways, and had let myself be carried along by the steady stream of bodies. After about ten minutes of this, I arrived at one of the mayor hubs of the network, Montréal’s main railway station.
Since I had a connection to Quebec City in a few days, I thought it would be a prudent move to check my ticket and so I wandered over to the information desk to have a quick chat with the man sitting behind the counter. It had been a tiring day, so instead of subjecting the locals to my mangled beginner French as I had been doing all day, I just showed the guy my ticket and asked in English if my train was going to be leaving from this station. It was and all was good.
As I was about to leave, the man asked me about my name and where I was from. I told him I lived in Berlin. His face brightened and in a loud, confident voice he said “Danke schön” with a perfect accent and a big grin on his face. I told him it wasn’t bad and we fell into a conversation about languages. It turns out Deano could say “thank you” in many different languages.
“If you guess how many, I’ll do a dance on the table for ya.”
I hazarded a guess, not necessarily because I wanted to see this spectacle for myself, but rather because I did want to know how many it was.
“Twenty?” Deano shook his head. “Forty?” Nope. “Eighty?” More head shaking.
“129! As a matter of fact I just added another one today.” Deano produced a photocopied list of countries listed in French, each with a different phrase. Some were represented by a sub-list of expressing gratitude. “There are 13 different ways to say thanks in Cameroon.”
It was a useful piece of information. Next time I’m at the Oscars and a Cameroonian director wins a prize, I’ll have time to order a drink from the bar while she thanks everyone in 13 different ways.
Deano went on to explain that he’d been working at the Via Rail Canada service counter for the last 30 years, so there’d been more than enough contact with different people to start tinkering around with a little language learning on the side. Every time someone came to him for information, they’d get it, and if they were inspired to have a quick conversation afterwards, he’d ask them about their countries of origin and about the languages spoken there. “I know there’s a guy who can speak 17 languages or somethin’ like that, but I’m gonna be in the Guinness book of records for this, man. I call it my La DiploMerci! Catchy, right?”
Tinkering with language learning is something I’m quite partial to as well, so I asked him how he memorised his words. Sitting behind the information counter at Montréal Central for 30 years had given him plenty of time to memorize the list and practise his pronunciation. The point was, he really loved doing it, and that was reason enough to do it, and keep on doing it.
“I kinda just punch the words into my head, you know?” he added, “I used to be a boxer in my youth, so I was used to using my head.” Deano grinned again and told me his accent training had come from another vocation, as he’d also been an actor in his youth, and had undergone rigorous phonetics training while learning his lines for various TV shows. We kept talking shop about language learning for a while and then it was time for me to move on and explore the rest of the labyrinth. We shook hands and I let myself drift along with the flow of human traffic again.
The encounter had left me thinking about the wonderful aspects of language learning, and in a world which seems to be more about building walls between cultures and people, it was nice to see that some members of the human race still felt the need to do the exact opposite and be nice to people. I vowed then and there to do something similar and make my own list of nice things to say to people in different languages.
I can’t think of a better way to show a middle finger to the right-wing powers-that-be than to learn how to say “thanks” in many different languages and getting out there and talking to real people, even if it’s just with one or two words.