Posts filed under “Travel”


Probably not in South Africa.

In Porto-Novo, Benin, laundry cannot be hung out to dry until it is blessed by the Archbishop.

Any resident of Coosawhatchie, South Carolina, who ambles across the highway in less than four and a half minutes is socially ostracized and has to move to Ridgeland.

In Cleveland, every April 1, traffic police amuse residents by enforcing the no left turn signs.

Capes are seldom worn in Cape Town.

In New Delhi, it is customary to give cabinet ministers gifts of socks with gold clocks in the hope of favorably influencing their decisions. It never works.

When a freshly married couple in Yoshinogawa, Japan, reach their new abode, the bride is carried across the threshold by an Amazon Prime delivery driver.

It is considered poor manners to wave frantically with the left hand while falling from a tall building in Dubai.


Photo of a Vatican City teller machine by Seth Schoen, who has released it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In one country in the world, you can use a teller machine in Latin, which makes Dr. Boli happy. The Google translation of the words on screen (click on the photo to enlarge it) makes him even happier. Dr. Boli knows that Google Translate’s Latin translations tend toward the surreal, so he had to find out what Google had to say in this case. Dr. Boli interpreted “Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem” as something like “Please insert card for operating instructions.” But Google interprets it as “I beg you to do anything you know them to the character of a card inside the mouth.” That is much more poetic than Dr. Boli’s interpretation.


IF YOU LOOK up “Smyrna” in Google, you get a little box with the beginning of the Wikipedia article: “Smyrna (Ancient Greek: Σμύρνη, Smýrnē or Σμύρνα, Smýrna) was a Greek city dating back to antiquity located at a central and strategic point on the Aegean coast of Anatolia.” And you get a map of Smyrna and its suburb Clayton and the 3 Palms Zoo & Education Center.



Note the librarian’s scribble at the top of this title page.

Martin the Mess writes, on the subject of French-derived place names, “Here in Illinois, we infamously mispronounce most of our French-derived placenames, such as Versailles (Ver-SAYLES), Des Plaines (DESS-Playnes), and Cairo (KAY-Row). I know the last one there is technically not French, but we manage to blame them for our mangling of it nonetheless.”

There is a borough of Ver-SAYLES on the Youghiogheny just outside McKeesport, and it is likely that there are many others in the United States. But Dr. Boli does not regard “Ver-SAYLES” as a mispronunciation. Famous foreign places have English names—Rome (not Roma), Moscow (not Москва), Munich (not München), Athens (not Αθήνα or Ἀθῆναι), and so on. As we become more ignorant of foreign places, we lose those native English names for them one by one, and have to go back to the foreign names when we do want to talk about them.

One of the more recent losses is Marseilles, so spelled (and pronounced “Mar-SAYLES”) until well past the middle of the twentieth century. A Merriam-Webster Geographical Dictionary from 1966 gives “Marseilles” as the only recognized spelling in English, and “Mar-SAYLES” as the only recognized pronunciation. Now, of course, you will be either politely corrected or snobbishly derided if you use the English spelling and pronunciation.

The same thing happens with foreign personal names. Who recognizes the name “Tully” today? We must say “Marcus Tullius Cicero” if we are to be understood. Yet the use of the correct Latin form is not a sign of better education, but of darker ignorance. Tully had an English name because he was a subject of everyday conversation in English.

Thus we may take the persistence of an English name for a foreign place as an indication that English speakers can still imagine that place as actually existing and potentially worth talking about, whereas foreign places that have lost their English names are at best unsubstantiated geographical rumors.

Local traditions, however, are more stubborn, and the English pronunciations of many foreign names are preserved in places like Ver-SAYLES and CAY-ro. You will not be able to extinguish the persistent belief that those names are “pronounced wrong,” but fortunately you will not be able to extinguish the pronunciation, either.

There is still no excuse for DESS-Playnes.


If you are not from Pittsburgh, there is a good chance you will not believe that this building exists. If you are from Pittsburgh, you may still not believe it. In fact, it is literally invisible to many people, even when they stand right in front of it, until it is pointed out to them: the human brain does not have a category for a building of these dimensions. This is the Skinny Building, which is eighty feet long and exactly five feet two inches deep. It has recently been restored to its Victorian glory, so our friend Father Pitt provided us with this picture.


The Vancouver El, photographed by Tim Adams.

Part 11.—What to See in British Columbia.

British Columbia, separated as it is from the rest of Canada by a broad swath of mythological territory, is rather different from the other civilized provinces. For some time in the earlier years of the automobile, for example, British Columbians drove on the left, while the rest of Canada drove on the right. The province is now officially right-hand-driving; but to this day, many drivers in Vancouver maintain the earlier tradition.

Vancouver, the metropolis of British Columbia, is famous for playing nearly every other city on earth in the movies. If you see a movie whose story is set in New York, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, Paris, Washington, Baltimore, Addis Ababa, or New Orleans, it was probably filmed in either Vancouver or Pittsburgh. If you see a movie set in Pittsburgh, it was almost certainly filmed in Vancouver; and if you see a movie set in Vancouver, it was almost certainly filmed in Pittsburgh. In this way Hollywood maintains its famous budgetary efficiency.

Vancouver has an elevated rapid-transit system much like that in Chicago or the Market-Frankford Line in Philadelphia. The authorities in Vancouver, however, have made the useful discovery that, whereas calling the system an el (as in Philadelphia) or an L (as in Chicago) makes it old and rattly and unattractive, calling it a SkyTrain makes it futuristic and modern and Disneyish. Branding is the key to success in any endeavor.

Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, has registered the word “quaint” as a trademark in Canada, and actively protects its intellectual property.

The Queen Charlotte Islands, famous for their scenery and culture, were officially renamed Haida Gwaii as part of an agreement with the First Nations inhabitants acknowledging their centuries of mistreatment by European settlers and their descendants. In return for the renaming, the Haida agreed not to expect too much in the way of anything actually worth money.

The mountains of British Columbia are tall, snow-capped, and awe-inspiring, and best seen from a distance, which can be accomplished from Vancouver without straying too far from the nearest Starbucks.

The interior of British Columbia is inhabited by large numbers of grizzly bears, which are tame, friendly, and lovable critters that enjoy a good cuddle, according to a government brochure published under the Tourist Reduction Act of 2012.


Part 10.—What to See in Albatchetoba.

Between Ontario and British Columbia is a large stretch of uncharted territory in which cartographers have felt free to impose their wildest geographic fantasies on the landscape. No two of them come up with anything like the same idea, which is what makes geography such a creative science.


Alberta Saskatchewan Manitoba


Most information about this part of Canada is similarly fictional. For example, a favorite inside joke among geographers on lecture tours is to speak of a city called “Saskatoon,” laboriously maintaining a serene countenance, until at last the lecturer breaks down into uncontrollable giggles, and the imposition is revealed.

The capital of Albatchetoba is Reginald, or possibly Winifred or Edward, home of the famous Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where all the human rights Canadians have fought for over their long and heroic history are embalmed in jars for public display. Tourists will also be enchanted by the National Museum of Grass, a celebration of the family of plants that made the prairie the endless dull slog it is.

Banff National Park is visited every year by millions of tourists lured by pictures of impossibly beautiful mountain landscapes, which are provided by a series of matte paintings, some of the largest in the world outside Hollywood.

The principal mammals of the Albatchetoban forest are unicorns, which are abundant in the woods and rapidly encroaching on the suburbs. Adult unicorns have no natural enemies, but the young sometimes fall prey to the Albatchetoban Flying Lynx.


Part 9.—What to See in Ontario.

Ontario is Canada’s most populous province, although, as with Quebec, we must remember that the “populous” part is crammed into an area about the size of New Jersey, leaving an area about the size of China to the wandering moose.

The main thing to see in Ontario is Niagara Falls, which was cleverly created by God (a notorious Canada-sympathizer) to suck U. S. tourists across the border to buy souvenir keychains. The thing about Niagara Falls is that you can hear it from New York, but you can really see it only from Ontario. Millions of tourists who say they have been to Canada have never stepped outside the part of Niagara Falls devoted to the themed-indoor-miniature-golf industry.

That is a pity, because if they stepped even a few yards out of that zone, they would discover that much of the rest of the Niagara peninsula is filled with memorials (such as the Brock Monument, above) to Canada’s glorious victory in the War of 1812. Now, every American schoolchild knows that the War of 1812 was really a glorious victory for the United States, in the sense that we did not actually lose anything other than human lives and the city of Washington, which are both expendable; but the polite visitor will refrain from disillusioning his Canadian neighbors. A drive along the border will open the tourist’s eyes to the remarkable number of fortifications that were erected for the purpose of keeping out Yankee invaders. Most of them have now been repurposed as souvenir-keychain emporia.

Toronto is the greatest metropolis in Canada, notable especially for its streetcars. Seven cities in North America never entirely abandoned streetcars (the others being Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New Orleans, and San Francisco); in Toronto’s case it was thanks largely to one stubborn transit official, who wielded such power in his domain that he could resist the diesel tide that overwhelmed other municipal transit systems. This is a strong argument in favor of the feudal system. Toronto is also the home of the CN Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere (sorry, New York), which is placed so as to give the Toronto skyline the look of a Star Trek matte painting.

Ottawa is the capital of Canada, and is therefore most notable as the best place to see majestic herds of members of Parliament in their native environment. Be sure to stop in and say hello to the Governor General, dropping off any hats you may wish to forward to Queen Elizabeth. The Governor General will of course present you with a challenge to prove your sincerity, which is why you brought those xylophone mallets.

The Thousand Islands are severely undercounted.