Do You Speak? Neither Do I

Jan - Grand Junction, Colorado
Entered on October 23, 2008

I love dictionaries, particularly foreign language ones. My German W”rterbuch snuggles between my French dictionnaire and my Spanish diccionario on my bookcase. Although I speak none of the above languages fluently, I’ve managed to travel around Europe without much trouble. Even non-English speakers I’ve accosted on the street, in train stations, and in restaurants reach for the dictionary I clutch and with smiles and gestures, send me on my way.

“J’ne parle francaise, parlez-vous anglaise?” turns the supposedly snooty French into kindly anglophiles. I once carried on a half-hour conversation in a Bordeaux hotel lobby with a monolingual nurse, using my dictionnaire and some broad gestures. A French-speaking Turk, also fluent in German (my best language) manned the tiny bar in the sitting room. A mustachioed Spaniard with a touch of English sipped wine alongside me as I drew the singular/plural first through third person verb conjugation chart on a bar napkin. By our second glass, I was pretty sure I could remember the present tense endings for regular French verbs.

In Germany, my catch phrase was “Mein Deutsch is nicht so gut,” a slight mistranslation which caused a few raised eyebrows, but the English-speaking hoteliers, restaurateurs, and information officers hid their smiles and answered politely. I had food, shelter, and all the weissbier I could possibly drink, thanks to my Worterbuch and the grammar I resurrected from a long-ago high school German class.

In Spain, “Yo hablo un poquito espanol” carried me across the country 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. I also discovered that the woman who sat on the hostel steps singing to the sunrise each morning was a secretary from Barcelona. She had come to heal her torn ankle ligaments by walking in the surf for hours each day.

However, my poquito espanol wasn’t sufficient to get me through the crisis of having my pack stolen, along with all my ID, credit card, and lo peor, my dictionaries. A passing Argentinian who spoke English explained my predicament to the police; then I was on my own.

Devastated, I boarded the train back to the hostel, which had registered my passport number. As I shoved my suitcase into the overhead rack, it slipped and almost decapitated a little old lady. Dirty looks need no translation. Neither do tears. Within ten minutes, the old lady was not only comforting me about my loss, which I’d managed to explain with what Spanish I still had about me, but telling everyone within earshot just what rotten bastards thieved their way through the big city. At least, I think that’s what she said.

Truly, a dictionary makes communicating easier, but a smile, a simple phrase, and the willingness to act the fool in pantomime opens minds and hearts. And to me, that’s what travel is all about.