My previous post regarding discourteous behavior on the part of Americans who are traveling abroad touched upon the challenges encountered whilst visiting countries whose mother tongue differs from one’s own and how many Americans unfortunately handle the situation far too often. Challenges are just one way to label what others may call either a difficulty or, what I would like to view from this day forward, as an opportunity — in general, but in the here and now in the context of travel.
Are you intimidated to select a destination for your next destination on account of the fact that the national language spoken there is not English? Sure, English is the official language of a good many countries…. According to Wikipedia (ok, not the most accurate of all internet sources, but certainly a reasonably reliable one in many instances), English is an official language of 58 sovereign and 21 non-sovereign entities. For those selecting their next travel destination based upon English-friendly countries, click here for Wikipedia’s list. English is clearly either the official language or at least the primary language of a good number of countries/entities, so travel destinations are relatively many and varied. According to most sources, the world consists of approximately 196 countries, so if English speakers choose to limit travels to only countries where they have a strong sense of comfort due to familiarity with the native tongue, they are still severely limiting themselves in the scope of their travel possibilities.
I’ve always relished the opportunity to expand my horizons and have found distinct pleasure in learning about and experiencing other cultures. While there certainly can be challenges when visiting foreign lands, I welcome those challenges as learning experiences. Again, as noted in my discussion of “Ugly Americanism,” it really doesn’t take much effort to research a small number of handy phrases in the language of your destination, such as “Where is the…” or “Good morning!” or a simple “Thank you.” It isn’t even necessary to memorize the phrases, as a little cheat sheet can do the trick. I’ve found being armed with this tiny tidbit of knowledge to be extremely helpful, empowering and even comforting while traveling abroad. Plus, showing just a wee bit of courtesy to locals fosters an immense amount of good will and opens the possibility to engage in interesting conversation, even if the spoken dialogue may be somewhat limited.
It’s never a bad thing to grasp an opportunity for an educational experience. During my travels, I’ve relished the times my son and I have had chatting with and being bestowed with the kindness of strangers. During my first visit to Croatia in 2009, my son, my friend Jen and I filled the remainder of our port stop in Dubrovnik with an impromptu taxi tour into the mountains above the walled city. At first, we thought we picked the wrong cab driver, since he seemed frightfully surly and unfriendly. But because Jen, Devan and I all can hold a conversation with a (reluctant) turnip, we eventually nudged our taxi guide into opening up to us. We discovered our driver’s name was Zeljko, and that even though we found out he had an excellent command of the English language due to prior visits to the U.S. on container ships on which he was a crew member, he was very insecure with his English skills. We assured him that his English by far surpassed our Croatian capabilities, and he truly seemed to later enjoy putting his language prowess to use.
As we drove higher into the mountains above the old city, we learned of Zeljko’s pride in his country as he shared his knowledge of the country’s difficult recent history. At the peak of the mountain, Zeljko parked the cab and got out without saying a word. Devan and I wondered if he was looking for somewhere to relieve himself, and Jen became somewhat alarmed when she asked what he was doing, and Devan surmised aloud that Zeljko was probably trying to figure out where to bury our bodies. In truth, he was just looking to see if the Museum of Croatian War of Independence at Fort Imperial atop Mount Srđ was open. It was, and Zeljko was kind enough to play private museum guide during our visit to the museum; the experience we had was enriched by his personal take on each artifact and photo he detailed for us and certainly wouldn’t have been the same had we not gotten Zeljko to warm up to us (even after Jennifer mistakenly referred to him as “Jerko” to his face). Zeljko did show his sense of humor when Jen expressed her shock that we were within a stone’s throw to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, as he returned her question with, “Lady, have you ever seen a map?” Zeljko’s language skills were far superior than he had given himself credit for, as his abilities even allowed for a tad of sarcasm! It made me wonder how many visitors on his taxi tours never got the chance to draw Zeljko’s personality out…or possibly more accurately how many tourists’ behavior led him to internalize his kindness and willingness to share his wealth of knowledge and life experience. What a shame.
I was happy that the one word I learned by rote prior to my arrival in Croatia was “hvala.”