Monday, June 25, 2007

New Feature: The Ethical Dilemma of the Day

Thursday, June 21

I woke up around 5 a.m., Raleigh time, to the cabin lights coming on. The crew served something that might, very charitably, be called breakfast, and I dug around in the movie selection this time. I found Beauty and the Beast and streamed it in German. This time I was doing a much better job at following the language. I was very impressed at how well they had translated the lyrics into Deutsch. The singers were also quite good. Sadly the plane began it’s descent and shut off all extra electronics while I was halfway through “Be Our Guest.” I’ve been looking in stores for a DVD copy, but it appears that Germany, like America, has fallen prey to the Disney tactic of pulling all copies to create artificial demand in advance of their next “re-re-re-release special bonus anniversary addition with all-new features!”

The Amsterdam airport was interesting. Every time I tried to buy something, like a cute china mug with a windmill, the sales clerk asked to see my boarding pass and passport. When I bought water, the clerk asked if I intended to drink it before or during the flight. I said, “Uh…during?” thinking, “What, is this an either-or question?” Apparently it was. She put the bottle in a sealed plastic bag and told me not to open it before take-off. I gather a new EU regulation forbids taking any kind of open liquid container as carry-on.

Navigating the airport was a bit eerie. I kept trying to read the Dutch signs, or listening to Dutch conversations, and thinking, “It’s almost German, but not quite…” I kept thinking about the linguistic idea of mutual incomprehensibility: farmer B in the Alps speaks an odd “mixed” dialect and can understand merchant A from Milan and also merchant C from Zurich, but merchants A and C can’t understand each other. But, as my mom explained, if you drew a line from Milan to Zurich, at every point, neighbors would understand each other. Several times I heard people speaking and thought, “I really hope that’s Dutch, because if it’s German I’m only catching one word in twenty and I am doomed.”

Speaking of languages, I had a linguistic ethical dilemma in Amsterdam. In fact, I think I shall make the Daily Ethical Dilemma a regular feature of this blog. Perhaps it will encourage comments.



So I was waiting in line at a bathroom in the Amsterdam airport. Behind me, a woman suddenly shouted, “Come on ladies! I really need to go!” In English. She sounded very brash. I cringed. “This is what gives Americans a bad reputation!” I thought. “Perhaps if I remain silent, no one will realize that I am American, too.”

Then I thought, “But if she truly is desperate, would it not be the Christian thing to let her go ahead of me in line? On the other hand, I don’t want to reward this behavior!” I was still debating this with myself, uncertain of my decision, when, serendipitously, two stalls opened at once.

Afterward, it occurred to me that I could have turned around, looked at her politely, and said, in French or German, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t speak English. What did you just say?”

Naturally, it occurred to me too late. But the ethical question remains: what should I have done?


In Munich, I bought my train tickets all by myself, and the entire conversation was in German! I was so proud of myself! I had to ask the clerk to repeat himself once or twice, but I was still euphoric over this linguistic coup when I boarded the train for Ostbahnhof.

Of course, later that evening, as Jon walked me to the hotel, I saw an Internet café and went inside to inquire about prices. I tried asking “Excuse me, how much does one hour of Internet cost?” and the clerk looked at me like I was a half-wit. Very carefully he wrote down a figure and showed it to me on paper. (It was 7,5 euros, an outrageous price.) “Verstehen Sie?” he asked dubiously. This rather deflated my ego. It’s been like that this whole time: half the time I manage great in German, the other half of the time, people wince and say “You can speak English to me.” [Sigh] I really am trying to practice and use my practical German. Almost it hurts my feelings, almost, when people wince! Although, in fairness, perhaps I hurt their ears just as much.

After arriving at the hotel, I read for a while to decompress, and then collapsed wearily into a little heap. I had been in motion for forty-eight hours (subjective time). I did manage, during my travels, to read most of “The Speed of Dark,” a book Ronald recommended. I have since finished it. Very interesting, and it mercifully avoided turning into "Flowers for Algernon." It is fascinating to consider things from the Autistic perspective. I have to wonder, if I were given the chance to give Eric surgery to reverse his Asperger's, would I do it? I'm not sure! His condition is fairly mild, and he's such an amazing kid, I would hate to risk changing him.

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