Monday, March 22, 2004

Ashita kite kudasai, ne? Ne? ... Kottu, kottu, kottu!

I watched the movie Lost in Translation last weekend, and I thought it captured several things extremely well.

First and foremost was the film's depiction of the effects of jet-lag. The experience of dropping dead-tired into bed and lying there wide awake night after night is just awful. I thought Bill Murray played this well (although he has the advantage of an up-all-night face already...). I was in Tokyo for a week in May of 1993, and this film brought back that trip in waves. I had gone on a trip to a meeting of the Committee on Earth Observations Satellites, and I can say that attending meetings where people droned on and on and on while my brain and body insisted I should be sound asleep was sheer torture. Luckily most of my travel these days is North-South, rather than East-West. Yes, I lose a night's sleep going to Rio, São Paulo or B.A., but at least I'm in more or less the same time-zone.

Second was the capturing of the feel of a night out with strangers while on travel. These are people one will very probably never see again, but one manages to have a great evening. Even within a very short time, there is very little you can recall about the evening - short vignettes, really. I've had several of these, and they are all mixed together - I'm not even sure what city they ocurred in, or who I was with. Not lost to intoxication, because I often choose not to drink simply to try and remember more of these strange evenings, but probably because these memories have very few hooks to attach themselves to. They are out of context, and so are not important for daily life, and so are destined for the mental midden heap.

The last and probably most important thing in the movie was the overwhelming sense of dislocation. This is what pushes the characters Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) together, because they would certainly never interact, much less connect, in their home environment of Los Angeles. Wandering around in a culture where you don't understand any of the spoken announcements, street signs, or even what people are doing in their everyday lives is a very odd feeling. I took a day to go to Kyoto, just as Charlotte does, and had to travel the Tokyo subway to get to the Shinkansen bullet-train station - I stood in front of the map trying to figure out how much my fare was going to be, but I could not make head nor tails out of the schematic. Luckily a 'nice little old lady' came by and helped me, buying my ticket from the automat for me. I walked for miles in Kyoto, saw a lot, and understood little.

...but at least Kyoto had subway signs in English.

I had had this sense of complete dislocation once before, in a country where I barely spoke any of the language - Turkey. I travelled a lot by bus there, because their system is very reliable. I remember clearly standing on a street, trying to decide whether this long list of items and prices painted on a whitewashed wall referred to destinations for the buses leaving from the bus station inside, or to dishes served at the little café alongside the wall. I eventually did get to Çanakkale to see the Gallipoli region of WW-I fame, and the city-mound of Truva, held by many to be the Troy of Homer's Iliad.

I link Turkey to this piece about dislocation on purpose. While I felt momentarily dislocated, I cannot imagine what it must have felt like in 1928 for the entire nation of Turkey, when their strong-man leader, Kemal Atatürk, decided that to modernize, the Turkish language should be henceforth written in Latin script rather than the Arabic script which had been used for the previous thousand years. Within a few short years, no child could read the Arabic script, and the population was disconnected from the inscriptions on its most important monuments and the writings of their historical documents. As I looked at ancient graveyards full of Arabic script tombstones, I wondered how many families had lost track of gravesites, simply because they couldnt read them anymore.

One other thing Ataturk did with great success was to "purify" Turkish by banning the use of foreign loan-words, reducing the use of Farsi, French and Arabic from about 80% of the active written vocabulary of the time to about 10%. Luckily for me, there were still some impurities left - after purchasing a Coke from a street vendor, I only realized why he was screaming at me as I walked away when I caught the word shishé, shishé! in his ranting. From what remained of my Farsi, I remembered that shishé means 'glass,' and I realized that the man wanted his empty back when I was done. I was supposed to drink it on the spot!

More on my dislocations in Turkey some other time.