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What’s in a name?

I was in India a few years ago at a workshop … me and 49 locals and one French girl who may as well have been Indian she’d lived there that long. As an ice-breaker, we all formed a circle and the first person introduced himself. Hello, my name is Lakshminarayana. Then the next introduced herself: Hello, my name is Kajal and this is Lakshminarayana. And then the next: Hello, my name is Anand and this is Kajal and Lakshminarayana. And so it went around. I was number 35 or so in the circle and I was stumped. Had it been in Ireland, I’d have had a reasonable chance. We have simple names like Peter, Paul, and Mary. But aside from having a terribly bad name/face recollection, I couldn’t get my tongue around the names. Embarrassing. And particularly embarrassing when the last person, No. 51, introduced herself and remembered every single name in order. And she was 80 something.

Earlier still, when in Oxford studying, a number of my classmates came from China. They anglicized their names to make it easier for English-speakers to pronounce. Hi, my name is Vivien. I’m from Guangzhou still sounds odd.

And further back again, when I was at my swearing in ceremony in the USA, every Asian being conferred with US citizenship had chosen a new, American name. Xinran became Amanda. Mengyao became Matt. Qiuyeu became Connie. And it didn’t sit well with me.

Mark Twain supposedly said: Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson. The man had a sense of humour; you get the picture.

Anyway, I’d forgotten how mispronouncing people’s names irritates me until I saw a clip of a UK politician being interviewed about Vona Gábor’s recent foray to the UK. Now, of all the Hungarian names out there (and yes, I have problems with György and Gergely and as for Fruzsina…well…and that’s not even touching the family names) but even I can manage not to mangle Gábor. Don’t get me wrong – he’s not on my Christmas card list – but I was a tad upset that those on the public airwaves whose pronunciation will be copied with a religious fervour, didn’t bother to check the pronunciation of his name, or that of his party, Jobbik.

Confucius reckoned that if names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things. And he had a point. But on a more basic level, I reckon that we’re just getting lazy. We can’t be bothered making the effort, and in readily taking the easy way out, we quickly come to accept a new norm where others must change to accommodate us. That is wrong on so many levels.

Yes, it’s difficult. And yes, I regularly make a hames of people’s names here in Hungary because I simply cannot hear the different sounds, let alone repeat them. I’m tone deaf. But I refuse to anglicize them. I like to think that my efforts, no matter how pathetic, are seen as well-intentioned. But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps my Hungarian friends secretly wish that I wouldn’t try too hard. I wonder.

First published in the Budapest Times  31 January 2014

Lads (and ladies)…get a grip

Samuel Osgood’s relatives might sit around their dinner table and recount with some pride that teetering on a leaf on a limb of the family tree is the first Postmaster General in the United States of America. At my dinner table, he’s famous for the 15 words he strung together one night, after reflecting on the rarity of a good handshake: I love a hand that meets my own with a grasp that causes some sensation. Osgood died 200 years ago but I am certain that were he alive today and willing to come to dinner at mine, he’d be saying exactly the same thing.

I get to shake a lot of hands. It’s part of my job. And I am constantly amazed at the poor quality handshakes I meet. Lads – listen up! We women are not so delicate that you have to be wary of causing some sensation. Straighten up. Get a grip. Be men, for God’s sake. Likewise, ladies, this applies to you, too. Don’t let the side down. I’m sure there’s many a man out there who would like to grasp a hand that causes some sensation.

handshakeWhile some may think the handshake to be little more than a formality, to others it speaks volumes. I’m in the volume camp. There’s a theory out there that the handshake originated with knights clasping the arms of their opponents to ensure that they weren’t hiding daggers up their sleeves. An age-old expression of equality, it is hard not to read a novel into something that comes accross as anything less than equal.

I’ve studied this subject in some detail and have participated in a number of Diplomatic Protocol and Etiquette workshops. Granted, I’m not exactly renowned for my expertise on handshakes, yet I figure I pay them more attention than most.

Let’s have a look a what’s out there:

The macho cowboy handshake: Think John Wayne on a bad day. Think bone crusher. Think macho man wanting to assert his manliness, be it with the little lady or someone he feels superior to. This is guaranteed to make me wince and you’ll know you’re doing it when you see my hand go white and my smile turn into a grimace.

The dead fish handshake leaves me feeling as if I’ve just held a handful of slime, an experience I’m not likely to want to repeat any time soon. The key here is that you ‘place’ your hand in mine. You expend zero effort. You leave it there for me to do with what I will. You simply can’t be bothered. And, wearing my heart on my sleeve as I do, my distaste will be clearly evident.

The early shaker handshake, also known as ‘the monarch’ or the ‘four finger’, is best avoided unless you’re of royal vintage. It smacks of superiority. It tells me that you don’t think me worthy; that you don’t consider me of the same social class; that I should be grateful to get the tips of your fingers and that you’re deigning to greet me at all.

The cold and clammy handshake is dangerous and wide open to interpretation. You could be nervous, or ill, or seriously uneasy in my company. You could suffer from agraphobia, xenophobia, or gynophobia. Or you might simply be hungover. Or have a guilty conscience. It will certainly leave a lasting impression but perhaps not the impression you were aiming for.

The power grip smacks of ego and is usually restricted to same sex handshakes. An interesting one to watch out for though, if you’re interested in how players position themselves on the corporate ladder and wonder who is in charge. If one party has grasped the other’s hand from above, then they’re clearly stating who’s the boss.

The delayed release is one I detest. If you’re using the basic form, you simply won’t let go of my hand (the holder). If you’re using the more advanced form, then not alone will you not let go, you are also pumping up and down (the shaker). Eye contact says a lot here – perhaps too much. Be careful. You could be telling me all sorts of things you’d rather I didn’t know.

The double-hander is not one to try unless you know me really well or are significantly older and wiser than I am.  Cover my hand with your second hand or take hold of my elbow while we’re shaking hands and you’ll have me wondering what’s up. What do you want from me? My vote? My approval? My undivided attention? On an intimacy level, this is a line you’d better be sure you want to cross.   

The ringed torture is one a lot of us women inflict upon ourselves. Don’t be caught unawares. Stay alert. Be ready to slip that knuckle-duster from your finger if you get within clasping distance of a macho cowboy.

So lads (and ladies), take a leaf from Mark Twain’s speech, The Begum of Bengal, and note that when you meet someone you want to impress, a handshake should be: a most moving and pulse-stirring honor – the heartfelt grope of the hand, and the welcome that does not descend from the pale, gray matter of the brain but rushes up with the red blood of the heart.

For the rest of your handshakes, you’re on your own.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 April 2013

Mark Twain’s monkeypod

Mark Twain visited the Hawaiian islands back in 1866 and took copious notes of what he encountered. He had a particular fondness for trees, as one of his despatches to the Sacramention Union noted:

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There are many species of beautiful trees in Kona – noble forests of them – and we had numberless opportunities of contrasting the orange with them. The verdict rested with the orange. Among the varied and handsome foliage of the Kou, Koa, Kukui, breadfruit, mango, guava, peach, citron, ohia and other fine trees, its dark, rich green cone was sure to arrest the eye and compel constant exclamations of admiration. So dark a green is its foliage, that at a distance of a quarter of a mile the orange tree looks almost black.

IMG_1833 (600x800)It was while he was travelling on the big island of Hawaii, going to see the volcano that he supposedly stopped in Waiohinu and planted a monkeypod tree. The tree blew down in 1957, but a shoot was replanted and is still clearly marked today as Mark Twain’s tree – albeith the second generation.

Writing from Waiohinu, Twain had this to say: Speaking of trees reminds me that a species of large-bodied tree grows along the road below Waiohinu whose crotch is said to contain tanks of fresh water at all times; the natives suck it out through a hollow weed, which always grows near. As no other water exists in that wild neighborhood, within a space of some miles in circumference, it is considered to be a special invention of Providence for the behoof of the natives. I would rather accept the story than the deduction, because the latter is so manifestly but hastily conceived and erroneous. If the happiness of the natives had been the object, the tanks would have been filled with whisky.

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IMG_2057 (800x598)Probably one of the most amazing things about travelling this island is the abundance of fruit. You can literally help yourself to oranges, lemons, mangos, breadfruit, guava, and avocados that are bigger than your foot. The rule is, is that if there is no sign saying not to, then you can pick what you like from the side of the road. When I think of what I pay for an avo in Budapest, I cringe. I’ve eaten so many now, that at night, I take on a peculiar Hulkish glow. The roads are lined with fruit stands, many of which are set up on an honour system – you leave the money in a box or  bag and miracles of miracles, no one runs away with it. This level of honesty takes getting used to  and the ample supply of free fruit puts subsistence living at a whole new level.

My only faux pas so far was mixing up my cherries!

Spewing forth

Volcanoes are monuments to Earth’s origin, evidence that its primordial forces are still at work. So read the opening lines of the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park website. And, if you know your volcanoes, you’d know that unlike the explosive continental volcanoes,  the more fluid and less gaseous eruptions of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa produce fiery fountains and rivers of molden lava.

IMG_1953 (800x591)As you drive in to the park, the first hint you get of some volcanic activity is the myriad steam vents. It’s like a low-hanging fog, but it’s coming up from the ground rather than dropping down from the air.

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From the distance, just before dark, you can see the plumes of smoke coming from the Halema’uma’u crater in the Kīlauea volcano. The crater became active again in March 2008 and now is a regular stopping point on the Big Island tourist trail.

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The crater can best be seen from the Jaggar Museum overlook, although you can’t get too close – for obvious reasons. Sometimes, the lava is close enough to the rim to see it bubble. But not today. Sulfur ratings show how dangerous it is to breathe (or not). Over on the other side of the mountain, a good few years ago now, I got to see the lava flowing off the mountain right into the ocean. As it began to get dark, trails of molten lava flowed down the side of the mountain, inching their way to the sea. It was like being on the set of a SciFi movie. This time though, the glow came from the crater itself. Pretty amazing stuff.

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The park is about 30 miles from Hilo on Highway 11 (a 45-minute drive); and from Kailua-Kona: 96 miles on the same highway (2 to 2 1/2 hour drive). Worth a stop. Get there about an hour before nightfall to see it it both its glories.

When Mark Twain visited the island back in 1866, he had this to say:

At four o’clock in the afternoon we were winding down a mountain of dreary and desolate lava to the sea, and closing our pleasant land journey. This lava is the accumulation of ages; one torrent of fire after another has rolled down here in old times, and built up the island structure higher and higher. Underneath, it is honey combed with caves; it would be of no use to dig wells in such a place; they would not hold water – you would not find any for them to hold, for that matter. Consequently, the planters depend upon cisterns.

The last lava flow occurred here so long ago that there are none now living who witnessed it. In one place it inclosed and burned down a grove of cocoa-nut trees, and the holes in the lava where the trunks stood are still visible; their sides retain the impression of the bark; the trees fell upon the burning river, and becoming partly submerged, left in it the perfect counterfeit of every knot and branch and leaf, and even nut, for curiosity seekers of a long distant day to gaze upon and wonder at.

There were doubtless plenty of Kanaka sentinels on guard hereabouts at that time, but they did not leave casts of their figures in the lava as the Roman sentinels at Herculaneum and Pompeii did. It is a pity it is so, because such things are so interesting, but so it is. They probably went away. They went away early, perhaps. It was very bad. However, they had their merits – the Romans exhibited the higher pluck, but the Kanakas showed the sounder judgment.

As usual, Brown loaded his unhappy horse with fifteen or twenty pounds of “specimens,” to be cursed and worried over for a time, and then discarded for new toys of a similar nature. He is like most people who visit these Is lands; they are always collecting specimens, with a wild enthusiasm, but they never get home with any of them.

Today, people taking home pieces of lava rock as souvenirs end up mailing them back to Hawaii. Bad luck follows. It’s a little like reports of tourists taking rock from the Rock of Cashel, in Ireland, being beset by bad luck once they arrived home, and the posting back the rocks. I’ve better things to be doing with my 23kg baggage allowance.