Monday, September 13, 2021

False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra

There's a linguistic phenomenon known as a "false friend". This describes words that seem familiar, but don't mean what you think they mean. I, alas, am the poster child for this phenomenon, having once been nearly laughed off stage for it.

It was the first gig of my first tour in Spain. I'd played a couple warm-up tunes with the rhythm section, and it was time to bring on our female vocalist. Proudly confident in my high school Spanish, I took the microphone and said "Señores y señoras, quiero introducir nuestra vocalista...." and before I could utter her name, the auditorium erupted in vast howls of laughter, which persisted for a good long while.

The bass player, a bear-like Andalusian named Nono, gestured with his finger to come over to him. He was gripping his sides, tears streaming down his cheeks, but he managed to croak out an explanation: "You just said you want to penetrate the singer. The word you want is 'presentar'".

Geez, "introducir" sure seemed right. But no. False friend.

In the years since, I've noticed cultural false friends beyond language. For example, in 90s Tokyo, I came upon a couple of sneering Japanese punks. Pierced everything, extra-malevolent mohawks. I nearly crossed to the other side of the street as they approached.

A wizened grandma a few feet in front of me nodded sweetly at them, and they straightened up, bowed respectfully (all malevolence cleanly washed off their faces), then recomposed their shtick and walked on. I'd thought they seemed familiar, but they weren't at all what I thought they were (I’m not sure they were even what they thought they were).

You'll notice this phenomenon a lot if you pay attention while traveling (if not, you'll develop a false sense of homogeneity). I seek it out, enjoying the cognitive dissonance. Here's one that steered me wrong for decades:

Ask any Portuguese about the town of Coimbra, and they'll say "college town". That's it. Automatic response. Nothing else to say. College town. Coimbra? College town. Yeah, a college town. Coimbra is a college town.

I figured they meant it was like Boston - a center of learning with a diverse community of intellectually curious students. A teeming academic beehive buzzing with chem research, creative writing, and chai lattes. This became my image of the place, persisting in the mid 90s when I briefly skirted the town's perimeter en route to Porto. It was magnificently beautiful (imagine a matte painting backdrop for a Star Trek episode set in year 1225 Europe). A picturesque seat of learning. A college town, I'd heard!

Last week I finally pulled into Coimbra, and commenced my usual onslaught of eating, drinking, hanging, talking, etc.. And virtually everyone I encountered was a bit "off". Dourly impersonal and weirdly disconnected. My AirBnB host, an engineering professor, placidly watched me struggle out of a tiny elevator with my collection of suitcases, bags, and laptop backpacks. She held out my key for me to grab with my fully-occupied hands, and mumbled "Welcome do you have questions." 

Still gasping from the effort and slightly disoriented, I tried to focus my mind on questions. The pause was not convenient for her. Without a shred of malevolence, she reemphasized, a little louder, "Any questions?" "Uh, no, I don't think so…" I replied, and she swiftly retreated into her adjoining apartment. Odd. Spooky.

And the whole town was like that. I'm an experienced enough traveler to not draw firm conclusions from a few encounters, but I couldn't avoid seeing this as the local style. 

Finally, I passed an open-aired nighttime concert about to start in a stunning plaza illuminated with highly dramatic lighting. It was a string quartet of serious-looking and well-put-together young people with excellent posture and intense game faces. I perched eagerly on some church steps to listen, and my mouth quickly fell completely agape behind my face mask. Here are a few bars.



This was a phenomenally - almost satirically - joyless and ploddingly under-tempo version of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Utterly grim and trudging and grudging. Zero youthful exuberance. The setting - the plaza, the buildings - was stirring. But the musicians were essentially contaminating it all with their drearily dispassionate - really, almost inhuman - performance. 

I escaped quickly (fearing transmission of a virus that might consume and neutralize my own musicality), and, upon arriving back at my room, found no hot water. I texted my AirBnb host, who replied as follows (this is a direct quote, and she wasn’t being cheeky):

Try turning the faucet to the left and wait a minute.

Three hundred devastating replies flashed through my head, but I finally opted for a cold shower, and let it slide. There was nothing to say, and, really, I was grateful that she'd sparked an epiphany which had been forming all day. 

Finally (thirty years later!) I understand what the Portuguese mean about Coimbra being a college town. There's a vibe of dour Aspergery disconnection and bloodless oblivious superiority. What they mean is that the town's pervaded by the very worst sort of academician vibe. They never lead by mentioning the beauty of the place, because, with a vibe like that, the beauty's wasted.

College town. Yup. A goddamn college town. Hey, what can you do?

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