SUMMER TRAVEL & FESTIVALS
Do you speak? Neither do I By Jan Weeks
love dictionaries, particularly ones that help me get around overseas. A German Wörterbuch marches side by side with a French dictionnaire and a Spanish diccionario on my bookcase. I don’t claim to be fluent in any of these languages, but I’ve managed to travel around Europe a couple of times on my own and easily find the three essentials: bed, beer, bathroom. I have no qualms about stopping strangers on the street, in train stations and in restaurants when I’m lost or confused. Inevitably, they read the translation of the English word I’m pointing to and send me on my way with smiles and gestures. I’ve found that knowing only one phrase—“I don’t speak (fill in the language). Do you speak English?”— makes locals eager to help. My probably mispronounced “Je ne parle pas français. Parlez vous anglais?” turned a snooty French woman into an anglophile on the spot. I once spent a rainy night in a small hotel across from the Bordeaux train station. The Turkish desk clerk spoke French and was fluent in German (my best language). He also tended the tiny bar in the lobby. A mustachioed Spaniard with a touch of English sipped wine next to me as I drew a verb conjugation chart on a bar napkin. With the help of my two new best friends and a second glass of cabernet sauvignon, I was pretty sure I could conjugate the present tense endings for regular French verbs. The next morning I carried on a half-hour conversation with a monolingual nurse with the help of my dictionnaire and some broad gestures. In Bavaria, my catch-phrase was “Mein Deutsch is nicht so gut,” a
slight mistranslation that raised a few eyebrows. But the hotel clerks, waiters and information officers hid their smiles and answered politely—in English. Still, I persisted in using my Wörterbuch and the grammar I resurrected from a long-ago high school German class to book rooms, order meals and get around the country. “Hablo un poco de español” carried me across Spain and deposited me at a beach town on the Mediterranean, where, with the aid of a diccionario, I flirted with a tall, dark and handsome Spaniard. Alas, our flirtation didn’t translate into more than a pleasant evening and a lingering adios. I also met a secretary from Barcelona. She had come to heal her torn ankle ligaments by walking in the surf for hours each day. Early one September morning, I sat beside her on the steps of our hostel as she sang the sun up out of the sea in a clear soprano. Though the words were in Spanish, I didn’t need my dictionary to understand the joy she took in living each day as it came. My pobre español didn’t help much when my pack was stolen, along with all my ID, credit card and lo peor, my dictionaries, in the Barcelona train station. A passing Argentinian who spoke English explained my dilemma to the police; then I was on my own. With no passport, checking into a hotel was impossible. I took the next train back to the hostel, where they had registered my passport number. Tears seeping, I shoved my suitcase toward the overhead rack. The train jolted and it slipped, nearly falling on an old lady. The dirty looks she and her companion gave me sure didn’t require translation. Sinking into my seat, I rested my head against the window and let the tears come. Then I felt a hand patting my
Jan outside of Rathaus (town hall) in Munich, Germany. knee and heard Spanish words that I’m sure meant, “There, there, it’ll be all right.” The old lady had gone from disgusted to kind in a heartbeat. She didn’t need a dictionary to know I was devastated. With the few words I’d picked up at the police station, I managed to tell her what had happened, and in minutes everyone within earshot knew just what she thought of the rotten bastards in the big city. At least, I think that’s what she said. It’s good to have a dictionary or a translation app for your iPhone, but tears, a smile, a simple phrase and the willingness to make a fool of yourself open minds and hearts, no matter what country you’re in. In the end, isn’t that what travel is all about? ■
Learn a language on your own While there are many online language learning tools, I find www.duolingo.com to be invaluable. The site offers free lessons in more than 25 languages. Progress is self-paced and each begins with tips and notes on that lesson. Rest the cursor on any word to hear the pronunciation and meaning.
Published on May 26, 2017