Notes on Travel, Language, and Communication
“What means draga?” I ask, with a stunning reduction of the syntax I love and take pride in maintaining. We’re visiting Moscenicka Draga, a seaside town in Croatia. It’s quiet along the square in these early weeks of May, and I’m attempting a conversation. “Is very good” with an emphatic nod, followed by “Is local?” with a shrug. And so we communicate, slaughtering two languages in one fell swoop.
Another trip, another year—this time in Le Marche, Italy—would find six of us (two Canadian, two British, two New Zealanders), sitting at another resort in the offseason, exchanging names in a vast and eerily empty dining hall:
I wrestled with whether calling this friendly man “Jiff” would be an affront to their accent. Or would the insult be to call him Geoff with our conventional (or Canadian) pronunciation? I was all-too-aware how accent tends to relate, in subtle and intricate ways, to class and status. To dodge the quandary of how to speak his name, I ended up speaking directly to Geoff whenever possible. (And wondering whether his outgoing wife might have thought that I ignored her, in order to directly address her husband.)
The six of us would end up traveling the same route for a week, coming together each evening to share stories, and gradually feeling like friends. But it began all awkwardness, for me anyway, navigating accents, manners and idiosyncrasies. I remember being surprised, within our first few hours together, to find myself translating between the New Zealand and British English. The British woman had attempted to ask about the bicycles they were renting.
“Heevy?” asked Jane, puzzled.
“No, heavy,” said Sue.
“Hippy?” asked Jane, seeming desperate.
“Heavy!” I heard myself shout. “Are they heavy.” Ah, they both shouted back, and carried on like fast friends, managing, as simply as that, to push through the obstacle between accents, all by way of a flimsy Canadian footbridge. Who’d have thought?
Traveling can seem like a constant struggle to find an iceberg solid enough to balance on, for a fleeting time; a small moment of comprehension amid the vast sea of mystery and misunderstanding. That perception may be yet another aspect of the introversion that characterizes me. My husband, on the other hand, is outgoing, and finds travel exciting. He’s comfortable mimicking, and eager to facilitate connection; to reach across those divides that most always inhibit me.
Like him, I do desire to connect, to forge relationships. But unlike him, I over-think, fretting about six too many things to be in any moment. An apprehension that I will transgress some invisible code encumbers me. More often than not, it renders me static. Which is not exactly conducive to communication.
What keeps me going, even when social grace has failed me, is a love for language. Other languages, translated into English, render our language so lyrical, so exotic. In Slovenia, we’re given a booklet called Long for Its Dishes Ljubljana’s Been Known. What lovely, convoluted phrasing! Inside, I find a short passage on the history of “The Society for the Recognition of Sautéed potatoes as a Stand-Alone Dish, founded in Ljubliana in 2002.” A pamphlet for tourists at Moscenicka Draga invites us “to enjoy an undisturbed holiday on its green areas under the boughs of hundreds of years old chestnut trees… Light up this beauty, make it eternal with your camera, and take it home with you as the most beautiful souvenir.”
In Venice, a week before, having forgotten hair conditioner, the inability to tolerate my unruly, frizzy mane for another day won over the reluctance for another encounter. On a quest, I found myself standing in front of shelves of unfamiliar and mystifying products. Stress of choosing gave way to enthrallment. It’s quite possible I chose for the language alone. No surprise, the shampoo-conditioner pair I left with was wrong for me. My “Energizing Shampoo” did, in fact, “prevent hair enfeeblement… and give thin and worn out hair” (of which I have none), “volumne.” It lived up to all of its “functional principles, including caffeine helping the oxygenation of hair bulb.” The conditioner promised “a special light, an extremely silky touch and a strong volumizing’ effect.” I can attest to the volumizing effect, if not the light silky touch.
My journal account of traveling from Croatia to Slovenia provides a scene that, across a few years and from the comfort of home, captivates me, memory bringing it into full colour as I read: Cab to deserted train station at Opatjka. Smokey and deserted until, at last, a slatted screen lifts from the window at the farthest corner, as if it were a confessional.
My husband stands at our side, asking questions, a whispery exchange with the hidden man: kuna pushed in, tickets pushed out. Questions put forward: What time? Which direction? Where to wait?
We’ve settled on a wooden bench, outside along one track. It’s a splendid day and I’ve had the best sleep in as long as I can remember—slept right through the chiming song of the pre-dawn Croatian birds. Monty goes to see if he can find a place to spend the last handful of our kuna for something to eat.
While he’s gone, one woman brings another, older woman to sit on the bench. The whole platform is deserted, but this older woman scoots right up next to me, her thick coat pushing against my bare legs. The rest of the bench is empty, as is the one opposite us. But contact seems the point, and I’m not sure how to deal with it. We sit silently, probably both assuming that we share no language, only space. And I don’t know how to read the sharing of space here. Not knowing how to respond I turn away, careful not to appear startled (which I was), or nervous (which I am). Sometimes, in this country, I’ve sensed a machismo, some faintly smouldering resentment when I’ve gone for a swim on their deserted beaches. Maybe Croatians and German tourists find it too cold; for me, it’s lovely, a joy and indulgence. But I feel the sidelong glances, I swear, and it dims the joy a bit.
This woman at the train station, however, does not transmit aggression. I very subtly slide away from her, just a bit, at exactly the moment that her daughter returns with their tickets. She notices, it seems, and asks, in the most beautiful English, if it was rude of them to sit beside me—and to pardon them if it was. I feel terrible now, and rush to assure her that I only wanted not to take more than my share of the space, in case others should join us. That makes no sense, but collectively, we seem committed to moving past the awkwardness.
Thinking back, I now realize the daughter may have assumed that I’d be a comforting presence for her mother, left to wait with their bags in an unfamiliar place. It’s so hard, reading all of these cues; always with a dearth of context, and with every underlying assumption prone to error.
Another year, another spring adventure; Portugal, this time. Luis, the man who coordinates the route we hike, explains, in the endlessly patient and gracious way he has, the complications of the day ahead. I am so enchanted by how he speaks that I take in nothing, leaving all responsibility for navigation to my husband.
Instead of attending to meaning, I listen to Luis’s speech, as if to music, turning phrases over in my mind, later recording snippets in the margin of our guidebook. “Would you BAL-eeve this?” he asks, waving his hands in the air to indicate a sweeping view of coastline. “The pess-AGES through the rock will be signified by markings to side,” he advises. And then, incongruously, a passage of his own elegant phrasing will be punctuated by: You got it? This refrain likely adopted from English television, we figure.
It’s also in Portugal, days later, we find ourselves in a tiny dining room where we will escape from a sudden, torrential rain for a late, damp lunch. Shivering, we ask for a pot of hot tea, rather than the more usual carafe of vino being enjoyed by our fellow dinners at the only other occupied table. Probably not sure what to make of us, positively steaming beneath our voluminous ponchos, our young server asks if she may also bring us “a BAS-keed of bread, along with cheese of goat and butter of cow.” She does, and it tastes every bit as exquisite as it sounds. As we take our reluctant departure, I’m horrified to notice the muddy puddles of rain we’ve left pooling on the ceramic floor beneath our table. Yet again, the impression I seem to make is a world away from what I would intend.