by Rab Bruce’s Spider

Last week I had a short holiday break in Munich, visiting the Oktoberfest. It was a manic couple of days, although I can assure all readers that I was very well behaved and did not disgrace myself in any way at all.

This was my first trip abroad for a good few years, and it gave me a fresh chance to compare things with home. A couple of things stood out. I’m sure every visitor to Europe is aware of these, but it is always worth keeping them in mind.

First was the integrated transport system, with the same tickets being valid on trains, trams and buses. I only used the train twice and was very impressed. The seats may not be quite as comfortable as the ones we are used to, but they are perfectly fine. The trains were on time and ran smoothly, but the main thing was the audible station announcements during the journeys. These were made in German and in English. As a blind traveller, I found them extremely helpful, especially as they also advised which side of the train to alight from.

You could argue that Munich is a tourist hotspot and so having bilingual announcements is nothing special, but Scotland is a tourist hotspot yet it is only really in the last dozen years or so that audio announcements have become commonplace on our trains, and they still aren’t available on most buses. Even when they are made, they are only given in English, which isn’t very helpful to visitors from abroad.

Nor do our announcements usually explain which side of the train to alight from. It may seem obvious to sighted passengers but, as a blind passenger, I still need to be familiar with the stations to know which side the platform is on. Believe me, if you can’t see, scrabbling around for a button to open the doors and then discovering you are on the wrong side of the train can be a little stressful.

Of course, privatisation of public transport has created enormous difficulties in the UK. Comparison with Germany suggests that the UK has got it very wrong from a customer service point of view and, quite frankly, what other point of view should really count when it comes to public transport?

The second thing I need to mention is that traditional comment that nearly everyone we met spoke English to some extent. From the elderly hotel receptionist, to the men and women serving the drinks, to the lady in a souvenir stall who sold us T-shirts, it was quite embarrassing that I barely used my very limited German at all because most of them were very comfortable speaking English and more than a few of them were fluent.

Much has been said recently about the decline in foreign language learning in Scottish schools. This is one area where I really feel the Scottish Government needs to do something. Our lazy attitude towards learning foreign languages is a very British trait, and it’s not one we should be proud of. I hope the Scottish Government will do something to address this.

We did have a very interesting chat with a group of Danish lads who were so fluent in English they even knew plenty of swear words. I’ll write more about our conversation with them in a follow up post. For the moment, the only other thing to mention is that I wore a pair of saltire shades at the festival and was greeted by more than one friendly shout of “Scotland!". We were made to feel very welcome everywhere we went, and the trip must have been a success because every one of us wants to go back. Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t make that more difficult.