Three languages before breakfast

“Whaiiiiiiwhurrrrr? Could you tell me?”

My fellow train traveller was worried. I could tell this easily from the way he rather frantically stared out of the window, flapping scraps of paper and looking lost. Canny about such things as I am, I could also discern that he was Japanese, and – with the exception of ‘Could you tell me?’, with varying inflections – that his English consisted of the increasingly emphatic “Whaiiiwhurrrr!”.

This was, however, a marked advance on my Japanese, which goes beyond ‘moshi moshi’ and ‘sayonara’ only so far as (the doubtless mis-remembered, but bear with me) ‘watasi no ie no kinzyo ne ooky na syok ubutuen gu arimusu,’ meaning roughly ‘there is a large botanical garden near my house.’ Handy, though sadly no longer technically correct. Otherwise, I must admit with some embarrassment to speaking more Klingon than Japanese. There’s a story there for another time; Bill Shatner was involved, improbably. Well, nearly. Anyway:

As ‘Whaiiiiiwhurrrr?’ becomes ‘Whaiiiiwhurrrrrrrr!!!’ – and as I become increasingly distracted by his bizarre white-with-black-polka-dots tailored jacket – I strive for anything resembling common ground. “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” Nein? Well, that’s a relief, for mine is rubbish. “Parlez-vous Français?”

This elicits an unexpected response from the next table of passengers. An amiable young couple festooned with angelic (yet screaming, at 8am) children, they turn out to be of a French persuasion. I proceed to attempt to explain that, no, I’m not French. They, having made the initial mistake, of course cannot admit that yes, my French is genuinely awful and perhaps, just possibly, and for the sanity of all concerned, we should revert to English. Thus I must gaimly struggle on, our mutual embarrassment mounting: such is the nature of European diplomacy. I further attempt to describe that I’m trying to understand the Japanese gentleman, an explanation somewhat impeded by my complete lack of French vocabulary concerning any Pacific Rim countries at all.

The French couple try Spanish and what may have been Portuguese, but by this time the poor chap is become quite upset. “Whaiiiiwhurrr! Whaiiiwhurrr! Can you tell me? Whaiiiiwhurrr!” I begin to estimate the likelihood of his being a Trekkie, but my already strained credibility with my fellow Europeans would likely not survive either outcome of that train of thought.

In the end all I can do is examine his ticket, and discern that he must change at Preston. With the aid of sketch maps and many hand gestures, I contrive to reassure him that yes, I will let him know when we arrive, and will point him towards the Manchester train. Which may, I suspect, be pronounced ‘Whaiiiwhurrr.’ I’m not sure either of us are clear what that means any more.

Subsequently, an opportunity to practice my schoolboy French is presented in the form of a French schoolboy, who bursts into the toilet cubicle as soon as – but thankfully not before – I unlock the door. He stands transfixed, baffled that I should be between him and the toilet bowl. I tell him that he’s standing in the door, and must leave so that I can get out. Or, possibly, I tell him cauliflower shines pendant, wobbly tractor penguin balloon. My French isn’t what it was. And it was awful, but nevertheless the boy gets the gist of my advice – or, perhaps, is terrified of the crazy man – and steps aside.

Throughout, the young woman who boarded at Carlisle sleeps peacefully, curled up on the seat, sucking her thumb. In the darkly comic film version of my life, she turns out to speak Japanese.

It’s 09:00, on the Euston Express out of Glasgow. When one is tired of the West Coast Main Line, one is tired of life, for all of humanity is here.


  1. Could he perchance have been saying ‘where we are’ ? That’s the question people ask all the time on my train commute, often shortly followed by ‘this train doesn’t stop at Mountain View?’

  2. That’s possible – good spot, actually, given that you have only a dodgy pseudo-phonetic transliteration to go on. However, I’m fairly certain he started saying it while we were still in the station at Glasgow. And you’d think he’d know where he’d started, at least?

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