Day 5: How do you say the fingers on your feet?

Well, the main part of the conference is over…the best talks (from my point of view) were in the very last session (numerical methods and some theory) …and tomorrow morning about 50 of us will travel to Kyoto on the Nozomi Shinkansen for a tour of Sekisui Chemicals…the chairman has also promised us something special in the evening … I hope it is sake and karaoke….I have just the song!!!

The most striking thing about this conference was the sheer level of incomprehensibility…and I don’t mean the scientific content…I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career going to various international conferences and mostly everyone understands each other enough to ask and answer questions…but not at this conference…

and its not just the japanese having difficulty understanding English…the spaniards were having difficulties too, and the italians seemed even worse…I guess the guy from Peru who only speaks french  had the best excuse…

…so people would ask questions with common scientific words like “temperature”  and “wavelength”  and neither the speaker nor the chair would be able to make out what was going on…. amazing!!!…..I came very close to shouting out translations from the back row…

The only other true English speaker was Patricia from Manchester (she at least could understand what was going on around her…mostly…see later for a counterexample)  and a few yanks who were more interested in business than the hard science…at least the Germans were able to cope with english!!!

Technology highlight:  when nature calls and you go to the bathroom,  you can continue to hear the speaker…the talks are piped into every cubicle…but no video thankfully…..so you don’t need to miss out on a moment of the excitement…

Technology disappointment….the screen and stage are displayed on a monitor outside in the lobby so you can see which talk the conference is upto and time your entrances and exits accordingly…unfortunately the screen is more fuzzy than the mirror in my tiny hotel bathroom after a long hot shower!!!

I though I was imagining things but the Japanese have basically left the foreigners to fend for themselves….I asked the spaniards what they had for dinner last night  and they said they bought some prepackaged meals from the seven-eleven and took them back to their rooms…I think the language barrier is frightening them a bit

the chairman recommended the faculty lounge for lunch..he said it served the best food on campus…unfortunately the japanese idea of superiority in food is to mimic western cuisine…I had an inkling of what to expect but my Manchester and German colleagues were a bit disappointed..though we had this amazing Salmon and pesto dish…and it was presented in a beautiful japanese way…I even pointed out how traditionally the dish is required to display the power of 5:  The prevalence of the five colors – white, black, red, green and yellow – has been a tradition since Buddhism arrived from China in the 6th century.  The dishes are also supposed to excite all 5 senses too!

Last night at the reception,  my Basque friend Joseba  asked me “how do you say the fingers on your feet”?…I thought about it for a while, and said I wasn’t sure but maybe the word was “ashi-yubi”  literally “foot-finger”  though I just checked the internet and it appears to be just “yubi”….Joseba looked at me and said “No!  How do you say it in English?”  he is hosting the next conference in Bilbao  and it is the 20th anniversary so he wanted to mention things that add up to 20  (….he is the only other semi-mathematician at the conference…)…the audience was too drunk by then to understand a word he said…

At afternoon coffee,  Patricia asked me “What does  ta-sigh   mean?”  I said I wasn’t sure, and asked her the context,  she said she wanted to pick up some japanese words and the staff kept saying it to her when they handed her a coffee…

So I went over to investigate:

Leon: “Tasai-to iu kotoba no imi wa nan desu ka”  What is the meaning of the word tasai?

Staff: “tasai,  nani, tasai???”   Tasai, what, tasai???

Leon:  “nihongo no kotoba deshou? ”  “I suppose it is a Japanese word?”

Staff:  Pulls out a small electronic dictionary and starts to look it up  “namae desu ka?”  “is it someone’s name”

I decide I have to be more specific…

Leon: “Sukoshi mae, sono kanojo ni koohi o ageru toki nani o iimashita ka”  “A moment ago when you gave this female here a coffee what did you say?”  ….I know my ad-hoc japanese was a bit crap here…given the disrespectful way I refered to patricia they might assume she is my wife!!!!

Staff:  “Aaaa,    kudasai”

Leon…(laughs)  to Patricia “The word is kudasai  NOT tasai  and it means please!”

Patricia:  “Yes, I’m not very good at listening to foreign words”

Anyway,  I’m halfway through “The tale of murasaki”  if I can finish it I can give it away to make room in my suitcase!!!…I’ll just have that last piece of baumkuchen before I go to bed!

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