Trying to communicate with minimal skills in a foreign language can be frustrating. Attempting to express or gather information when the response from the person spoken to is a quizzical stare can be maddening or ……..entertaining!
I once attended a talk and book-signing in San Francisco by the travel writer Pico Iyer. After his talk he was asked how he felt about traveling in a country where he did not know the language. Iyer replied that not knowing the language sometimes forces him to use exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. He further said that the mutual good humor that such colorful expressions generate can break down barriers and lead to a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. I can verify Iyer’s opinion.
In 2001, after a relaxing week on the Greek island of Skopelos, I was on my way back to my work place in Pristina, Kosovo. I had to spend the night in Thessaloniki as my travel connection did not leave until the following morning. Fascinated as I am by waterfronts I found a nice, moderately priced hotel near the harbor area. After checking in and relaxing awhile I decided to take a walk around the local area and have a light dinner.
It was a mild June evening and the walk was pleasant and enjoyable. Thessaloniki has a large broad bay that faces the Northern Aegean Sea and hosts a bustling, commercial harbor. I tramped about the waterfront and gazed at the different types of boats and ships that call on the city also known as Salonica. Ferries bound to and from the islands in the Aegean Sea scurried in and out of their docks. A troopship was loading a German army unit returning home after duty in Kosovo. Tramp freighters were anchored out in the bay quietly waiting for new cargo. It is the kind of a place, like the harbor of my native Los Angeles, which has always aroused my romantic imagination. Where did the ships come from and where are they going? What adventures they have experienced on their journeys? My kind of place.
As I was enjoying my stroll darkness began settling in and I began feeling hunger pangs. I decided to head back to the neighborhood where I was lodged. Near the hotel were some small restaurants and stores that catered to the local residents. I chose a brightly decorated delicatessen.
The delicatessen had lighted, refrigerated showcases filled with a variety of food from which a customer could choose the ingredients for his sandwich. The problem was identifying the foods. Some were easily recognizable; bologna, sausage, etc. My dilemma was that I am not much of a red meat eater and I wanted either chicken or turkey. But I couldn’t tell which was which and I didn’t speak any Greek.
As I was mulling over my problem a tall, bright-eyed attractive young clerk asked if she could help me. At least that is what I think she said. She was forthrightly engaging and had a twinkle in her eye. My Irish forbearers might affectionately say she had a ‘bit of the devil in her!’ I looked in the showcase and pointed at some light colored meat. She told me what it was – in Greek. Obviously puzzled I smiled and pointed again. The young woman paused for a moment and thought the situation over. She then put her hands under her shoulders and started flapping her folded arms like a bird. I started laughing. Then, after a moment’s thought, she apparently decided she needed to expand her description. She puffed out her cheeks and made gobbling noises like a turkey. Both of us started laughing.
She had delightfully communicated her message. And I got my turkey sandwich.
The next morning, while on my way to the bus station, I stopped by the delicatessen to see if my new friend was there. It was her day off. One of her colleagues spoke a little English and I told her what had happened the previous evening. She laughing turned to her co-worker and loudly told herabout my experience. Everyone in the store, including the customers who overheard the comments, joined in the gaiety. The charming young woman, with the twinkle in her eye and her warm spontaneity, had delighted another audience — and made a traveler feel warmly welcomed.
So my advice is to do a little language study before your trip. But don’t learn too much as you might miss some delightful experiences!
John O. Dwyer