The Immobile Interpreter

Not sure if travelling a lot is a pain in the ass when you’re suffering from motion sickness or if motion sickness is a pain in the ass for someone who has to travel a lot, to make a living.

Either way, it took me a fairly long time to figure out that I am not actually deranged, I am one of 30% of the population of the planet that suffers from motion sickness. And, for a nerd like me, knowing the science behind stuff does make such annoyances less of a bitch. Growing up, I couldn’t go anywhere without being sick and throwing up. First 100 yards in a car and I would puke my guts out. I would get sick on amusement park rides, swings, trips to the seaside and short rides to the market. Of course lack of proper roads (bendy and bumpy), smoking drivers, fumes, 30-year-old cars, closed windows (cos the draft is the biggest danger to human health, according to Romanians), buses crammed full of schoolchildren didn’t help either. Also, back then, in elementary school, I didn’t know enough to tell the unsympathetic adults around me that motion sickness is a common condition for anyone with a fully functioning vestibular nervous system. And that children between the ages of four and twelve are particularly prone to it.

What is it exactly? Well, it’s that unpleasant sensation of nausea and dizziness you experience when you’re in a moving vehicle. It’s also called travel sickness, sea sickness or car sickness, but these names don’t really capture it completely. That’s because, for one thing, motion sickness can be brought about not only by travelling in cars, boats, submarines, airplanes or trains, but also, as I mentioned above, by riding a carousel, for instance, or even a swing at a playground. For the next, sometimes motion does not have to occur for the sickness to set in. I’ll explain.

Contrary to what people used to tell me when I was a kid and contrary to popular belief, motion sickness is not just your imagination at work and it doesn’t start anywhere in your digestive system. All of the symptoms (general feeling of unwellness, headaches, nausea, hyperventilation, excessive sweating, weakness, dizziness, pallor or redness in the face, vomiting) are results of what happens in your inner ear (so it is all kinda in your head, if you think about it).

Inside your inner ear, there is a series of semi-circular canals (the labyrinth) filled with fluid. Now, when your head is moved, the labyrinth tells your brain how far, how fast and in which direction your head is moving. This information is passed on to the brain via the vestibular nerve. If your brain knows the position of your head, it can work out the position of the rest of your body. However, your brain also has to rely on other sensory information it gets from your muscles, joints and eyes in order to pinpoint the position of your body at all times.

So this is when it’s presumed that motion sickness sets in, when there is conflicting sensory input. This, for example, is how you can get sick if you’re in a stationary train and you’re looking out the window to the train moving on the line next to yours. Or if you’re in the passenger seat of a car that’s being driven on a winding road while you’re reading a book or looking at a map. In this latter case, your inner ear is telling your brain, through the vestibular nerve, that your body is on the move, but according to your eyes which are focusing on a stationary object, your body is still. This conflicting sensory information gets passed on to the part of your brain called the area postrema which is responsible for vomiting. If someone with motion sickness doesn’t stop moving, they will start to throw up. Frequent vomiting can eventually lead to dehydration, exhaustion and dangerously low blood pressure.

Not to be taken lightly!

I have never counted the places that I have blessed with my sick throughout the years, but they make quite an interesting collection: from the lovely Western Carpathians in Romania, to the dry plains of the South, to the Budapest Airport (remember?) and even as far as Miami. The last event occurred somewhere above Luxemburg during the worst turbulence I have ever encountered (I hate Bombardiers, by the way!). I have even been known to ask drivers to pull over  while on mission with EU delegations.

There are all sorts of tips and tricks on how not to get sick and believe me, I have tried everything! The best I can do now is offer advice on how not to get too sick or not sick enough to puke your guts out for the passengers of an entire friggin’ Airbus to see. It is worth mentioning that I never get sick on trains and boats…

Watching the scenery works, so don’t fix your gaze on individual moving objects, just scan the scenery in general. This way, your eyes will confirm the sensation of motion perceived by your inner ear. This only works for me if I’m in a car though and only as long as I don’t move my head as well. That makes me a pretty useless copilot, cause sometimes the driver needs an extra pair of eyes, but, since I have to be completely stiff and sometimes even keep my eyes closed if things get serious, I’m no help. When on a plane, during takeoff, turbulence and landing, I have to stay completely still and close my eyes; otherwise, there’s trouble.

Plenty of air (difficult on a plane, with that recycled stuff that dries your throat), no alcohol and very little dry food before or during the trip. If you’re in the car with a driver who smokes, bad luck for you. In Romania it is, for some reason, considered rude to ask people not to give you cancer.

Pills don’t work, not for me anyway. I’ve tried everything on the market, but to no avail, and I hate taking meds anyway.

What you can also do is be nice and patient with people who may ask you to pull over because they are sick. Also keep your cars tidy and go easy on the air fresheners. And don’t drive like assholes. And quit smoking, it’s icky! And if you want moar science on this topic, check out this and this.


Je ne suis aucune Madame

This post is dedicated to Alina.

Once upon a time, The Poetess and I were flying together on a plane of the defunct Malev Airlines, and, since talking to people when I fly keeps me from barfing and since I was in a shitty mood (I think), I decided to pester her about something completely innocuous like the shaking off of dead skin flakes. During this time, of course, I was gracefully picking my teeth for something stuck in there at breakfast (speedy departure; don’t judge!). One of the conclusions of that conversation was that neither of us is a true lady. We came up with examples and decided we do not fit the criteria.

Last week, for the first time in my life, someone referred to me as Mrs. [insert last name here] and it startled me; and, naturally, with me being the lady that I am (after a little wine), the most mature thing I could do at that time was to send a collective message to colleagues and students, to make it clear that Mrs. [last name] is my mother. Oh, la classe!

No, it wasn’t the first time in my life actually, but it was the first time someone referred to me that way in Romanian, which made it even scarier. Not even telemarketers have done that, because they are stupidly instructed to call people Miss/Mrs./Mr. + first name because some idiot decided it doesn’t sound as childish as it actually does and that it creates a connection  (it doesn’t). In the report my boss drafted after that awful meeting I told you about here, I am referred to as Ms. [last name] which was also not as scary. I like this title, it’s very convenient, and I use it very often, too. Unfortunately, Romanian does not have an equivalent for this handy feminist concoction, so we are stuck with resorting to Mrs. (if we are polite) or with the ever-ridiculous question “So are you a Mrs. or a Miss?” (if we are sleazy jerks).

Why did I bring all of this up? Well because one of the things I have been trying hard to get used to since I started working in Brussels (and occasionally Strasbourg), is being called Madame about twenty times a day. “Bonjour, Madame”, “Oui, Madame”, “Du thé ou du café, Madame?”, “Merci, Madame”, “Bonne journée, Madame!”, ya know, the usual. I just can’t…

I wish I had a scientific explanation for my aversion towards this word, but as you may have noticed I don’t have scientific explanations for anything much. The result of my training, I think; most interpreters know a little bit about everything, but few have in-depth knowledge about a particular subject. Anyway, the first, most obvious reason that I could think of was the cultural difference. In Romania (at least in Transylvania), it is rare that people address each other just by saying Mr/Mrs/Sir/Madam without anything before or after, anything like a title, a last name, that person’s occupation or even an adjective or a pronoun to show affection or consideration. It just sounds BAD! Don’t get me wrong, I have heard it used, but never by well-educated people, and whenever I hear some chav saying “Doamnă” (Mrs/Missus/Madam/lady) without attaching the vocative to anything, I just shudder. It’s like using “Mister” or “Missus” the way children sometimes do in English.

Now “Domnișoară” (Miss) is very often used without any concern for the fact that it is rude, condescending and reeks of unwanted familiarity, but that’s the kind of society I live in. I have never heard anyone complain about this so far, so is it all in my head? Well, the Romanian code of good manners doesn’t say much on the subject. The polite forms of address almost always include a name or a profession after the title, but apparently it is also considered acceptable to address someone with a simple “Domnule/Doamnă” followed by nothing, in the case of strangers.

What do I do? Nothing. I just don’t use any titles at all when talking to someone I don’t know, ever, in any language. I actively encourage my students to not address me using the politeness pronoun and I ask people to call me by my first name. Can this all be explained through a mere cultural difference? Probably not. It is also true that us Transylvanians are less formal than the rest of Romania, at least from what I’ve seen, but surely interpreters should find it easy to move past cultural differences, no? I mean, I haven’t heard of my Spanish colleagues having any issues with being called “Monsieur” or “Madame” in Belgium or France, even though Spain is the least formal country I’ve ever been to.

The truth is I am afraid of formality. Though I’m fairly reserved in my relationships with people, I don’t think I’ve ever gone past college in this respect. For one thing, I went from struggling student to well-off globetrotter in a pretty short span of time, and, for the next, I’m afraid of getting old. When did I have to start dealing with grown-up stuff anyway? Who are all these people in airports, and restaurants, and conference venues, talking to me like I’m an adult? I guess, then, that it is also a form of regression that I may sink into, as a way of seeking shelter from the responsibilities of my new life, as well as a way to cope with the gap between a culture that respects neither women nor children and an ultra-formal, yet egalitarian one that I haven’t quite managed to understand yet.

Yeah, that, and the fact that I am no Madam, I am not a lady. Ladies do not yell or curse or gossip or say inappropriate things; they don’t get angry and start bashing people, even if those people are chavs or sleazy jerks or idiot bosses. Ladies get what they want by using tact and charm, not by going in head-first with the “my way or the highway” attitude. Ladies let shit slide sometimes, because they know it’s not worth the hassle. Ladies are decent even to people who don’t deserve it. I can only aspire to that.