Friday, October 15, 2004

When in Rome...

Have you ever traveled to a different country? If you haven't yet, and you plan to, be sure to learn the cultural taboos before you go...

I recently took a trip to London to promote my new book and soon to be released motion picture "You Get Paid to do What?" Actually, it wasn't recently, and maybe I don't have a book, I am just trying to prepare you for the sarcasm to come.

I really was in London however, and was planning on staying there for a few weeks. I was with a group of students who were studying abroad, and before we left, we were informed of the similarities and differences between America and our great neighbors across the pond. They warned us about pickpockets, and things being stolen in internet cafes. We knew that "bugger me" was not an expression to be used in polite society. And we were informed not to ask for a "napkin" in a restaurant, because apparently "napkin" refers to certain British feminine products.

Feeling well prepared, I was eager to go visit all the sites of the big city. I could tell that I fit right in. I'm sure nobody suspected that I was a tourist with my bright blue jeans, and my sparkling white sneakers. I greeted people with the traditional "G'day" and " 'ello;" and said "Cheers" for everything else. Yeah, I was one of them.

Now it comes to pass that I was staying in room number two at St.Margaret's Hotel. It was a very fine room with a large painting of a boat, and a little tv so that I could watch BBC programming in all of its glory. But in order to get to this virtual penthouse, I had to get the key from the "nice" old lady at the front desk.

The old lady appeared to be a paragon of warmth: the welcoming smile, glasses on the tip of her nose, hair up in a bun (I have no idea what a bun is). She was kind of robust, and looked like a Mrs. Clause, or the grandmother who doesn't stop feeding her kids. She was pretty much every nice old woman you've ever met. But for some reason, she seemed to give me a cold shoulder. She would chat with everyone else; laughing and carrying on, but with me she just sort of tossed the key on the counter and turned away. I figured she knew I was just some noisy American tourist and she probably hated George Bush and therefore every American, so I thought nothing of it. Until I found out one teensy weensy little aspect of British culture that I was previously oblivious to.

Before I begin, I need to cover two points: First, try to think about any time you ask for a quantity of something that is smaller than the number five. Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems that most people feel the need to clarify that number by using their fingers as a visual aid. Where I come from, your index finger means "one," index + middle = "two," index+middle+ring= "three," and all four digits opposing the thumb equal four. Duh, right?

The second point that I need to make involves a little bit of a history lesson. Now, this may or may not be true, but I will explain this lesson as it was explained to me. Apparently back in medieval times, the archer was considered one of the deadliest weapons in an army. Those who mastered the long bow could take out numerous enemies before they came within striking distance. When an archer was taken prisoner, in order to humiliate them and render their skills useless, the captor would cut off two of the archer's fingers: the index and the middle. So when it came to battle, the archers who still had their all their fingers would wave two in particular (index and middle) at the enemy, as a way of taunting. One could say it was their way of saying, "Hey, look what I've got. F- you." And so that gesture and its meaning have carried on through the ages to present day London.

Well, needless to say, I discovered the reason for the nice old lady's abrasiveness towards me. I had been asking for "Room Number Two," the only way I knew how: with my index and middle finger. It would be like someone asking for room Number One by flipping the bird. Unfortunately, there was no way to make up to such a stubborn old ninny, and the best I can hope for is that maybe this little story will prevent someone else from making the same blunder.

Or perhaps maybe she just needed a "napkin"?

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