[ back ]
Language no barrier to fun game of tennis
OF KIDS AND NATURE, BY HERTHA BINDER
Language no barrier to fun game of tennis
People who are good in a particular sport, who know all the rules, have proper clothes and excellent equipment can't imagine how much fun you can have without all that refinement.
Take tennis. When Jeff was 9 years old, he took a summer tennis class. The instructor showed the kids how to hit a ball so that it didn't land in the net or fly over the fence. Sometimes the students were successful. He made no attempt to teach the rather sophisticated system of keeping score.
Jeff wanted someone to hit balls with him after class. Dad was too busy, and Jeff didn't want to play with Kenny, his little kid brother. So I played with him, and he taught me all he knew. Soon I could whack the balls well enough to let him win, but at that time I made no attempts to learn more.
"I'm better than you, Mom!" His confidence swelled.
Early the next summer, our family made a big trip. My husband, sons, Jeff and Kenny, and I went for a few days to Austria to visit the grandparents. After that, Dad and Kenny went back home, while Jeff and I stayed for another week in Switzerland.
Our main activity was snow skiing, which you can do there even in summer, on glaciers. By early afternoon, the lifts closed, because the snow became too slushy in the warm sun. Then we enjoyed true summer activities, such as hiking, swimming and -- tennis.
The village had several public tennis courts, racquets were for rent at the sports store, and we bought a can of balls. The court surface was that strange European red clay (you might have seen it on television). The red dust gets on everything. First, of course, on the balls, from there on your sweaty hands, then on your face, your hair and your clothes. After an hour you are red from head to toe.
Another strange thing was that the European fences on the side of the court are very low, maybe just 4 feet, and, therefore, lots of balls land outside. In our case, they rolled across a busy street, and many landed in the entrance of a hotel. When we picked them up, we stammered an embarrassed excuse to the doorman.
Jeff, of course, wanted to win, so we had to keep score -- any score, that is. We used the system of Ping-Pong, but when we called something like "16 to 18," the people on the next court gave us a dirty look as if to say, "You dimwits shouldn't even be here." I would have liked to just be quiet, but Jeff insisted, calling over the net, "So, Mom, I have 19, and you have 15, OK?"
"Right," I said, hitting the next ball toward the hotel, where a waitress with a tray of food nearly stepped on it. Oh, well.
I have to digress here. Communication in Switzerland is stimulating. All Swiss people speak German, French and Italian, the three native languages of their country. Everyone in the tourist industry is also fluent in English, and many workers -- waiters and such -- are from Spain and speak Spanish. It's not unusual to have four languages in a brief conversation, for instance: Waiter, "Excusez moi" (French). I, "Danke" (German). He, "Is this OK?" I, "Gracias" (Spanish). It comes natural.
One day this language mixture lent extra suspense to a tennis game. When Jeff and I came to the courts, they were all taken, and quite a few people sat on the benches waiting their turn. Since everyone is allowed an hour's court time, it looked nearly hopeless for us. We were already turning to leave, when two boys approached us, maybe 12 and 13 years old. They introduced themselves as Enrico and Pedro and called us Geoff and Mahmi. I believe they spoke mostly Spanish, although it could have been Italian, and they seemed to be the kids of foreign workers.
People there have a knack to make themselves understood with gestures and facial expressions. Enrico pantomimed that they were in line for the next free court, but they had no balls. We had balls but no court. So would we like to play doubles with them, using our balls and their court time?
Well, why not? Jeff and I found that their tennis skills were hardly better than ours. Enrico, stocky and very well fed, bounced all over the court, yelling at Pedro, who was a bit more restrained. Usually, they either both tried to hit a ball or both waited for the other to get it.
In any case, when one of us four missed a shot -- more often than not -- the other three laughed and discussed the mistake in three languages. Polite as the two boys were, they insisted on retrieving all balls from outside the fence and cheerfully suffered being chewed out by the hotel's doorman, pretending not to understand him.
When one of us started to giggle, all three others joined in, and if Enrico wanted to know what time it was, he didn't bother asking. He ran over to our side, grabbed my hand and looked at my wristwatch. In the end we were more tired from laughing than from playing. The hour was over much too soon.
Pedro collected all three balls and handed them to me with an exaggerated bow.
"Yeah, yeah. You are kidding me." I chuckled, and he understood.
With more laughs, handshakes and "gracias, mercis, thank yous and danke schoens," we parted.
Jeff summed it up. "This wasn't real tennis, but it was sure lots if fun."
[ back ]