This post is being written in Casablanca, Morocco, which so far is nothing like you see in the movies. It is a weird combination of breezy beach town and bustling modern city on the go. Yesterday’s itinerary included a visit to the local FedEx, where the workers were super helpful and friendly, which is very Morocco, and then the credit card machine was broken – which is also very Morocco. But all was sorted out and the package is, hopefully, winging its way back to the U.S. even now.
But my subject here today is not travelogue, it is literature. My reading for the first part of the trip was Robert Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, which – despite being written three years after Stranger in a Strange Land – is one of Heinlein’s light entertainments, not one of his philosophical blockbusters. But it is still slyly subversive, not least because it is written from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl (8 in Mars years), over the stenuous objections of Heinlein’s publishers. A female protagonist was unheard of in science fiction in 1953, a good 26 years before Alien.
At the beginning of the book, Poddy (as she calls herself) is on her way to Earth for the first time. But she gets waylaid on Venus, which isn’t between Mars and Earth except when it is. Some of her descriptions of Venus, which is very different from her home planet, have been quite relevant to my current travels:
Tipping can be a nuisance but it is not quite the vice Marsmen think it is; it is a necessary lubricant for perfect service.
And tipping has been a constant concern in Morocco. A dirham (which is worth about 10 cents) goes a long way, but it can be wearying to always have to think about how much to give to whom. Talk about your First World problems….
Poddy goes on:
It isn’t necessary to be a linguist if you will learn just one word – in as many languages as possible. Just “thank you.”
I’ve learned to say “thank you” in as many languages as possible and I always try to say it in the home language of the person I’m dealing with, if I can guess it, which I usually can. Doesn’t matter much if you miss, though; porters and clerks and taxi drivers and such usually know that one word in several languages and can spot it even if you can’t talk with them at all in any other way.
In the event, just before reading this I had given up on making any headway in Arabic – it is a damnably hard language, and no linguist I – and decided to concentrate on learning to say just one thing. The Arabic word for “thank you” is rendered in English as “shukran,” which looks like a two-syllable word, but in practice it is usually stretched out to three syllables: shoo-ka-ran.
It seems to work, though in the city, where people speak French, “merci” may be preferable. However you say it, gratitude for any service is never out of place. Here endeth the lesson.