|Unknown women at airport in Skopje|
There are so many people in the world, so many different experiences of life, and I've been fortunate to have traveled a fair amount into many different environments. From the mountains of the Andes, to China and Vietnam, I have met people as different from me as one could imagine. And yet, we all have lives that matter to us and our families, with each of us trying to find our own little corner of the universe where we belong.
I was fortunate to have lived in Puerto Rico for several years and learned to speak some Spanish. Although I don't practice it much, when I traveled to Peru I was able to study it again and use it pretty well. When I knew I was going to be traveling to Paris, I took a French class but my Spanish kept clogging up my brain when I tried to learn to speak French. In Paris I was at a tremendous disadvantage being unable to speak the language and was treated as a bothersome tourist, and many servers took advantage of it, charging me more and ignoring me. I felt out of place, and of course I was.
Learning to communicate with other people who don't speak the same language is not difficult in most places, and given enough time, most of us learn the essentials and accommodate each other as best we can. I have had people communicate with me through pantomime and knew exactly what they were telling me. Although most Americans believe that in most places there is at least a little English, I have found that not to be the case. Although in China most people study English in school, they never hear it spoken and consequently have a difficult time communicating in the language. I carried a business card with me when I entered a taxi in China, showing my destination to the driver; otherwise I wouldn't have been able to get around that way.
This past week, I noticed a trio who have been taking the bus at the same time every day, when I am traveling home after going out for my morning coffee and class. An older woman and a younger couple, and they were speaking to each other in a foreign language. I thought I understood it to be Russian, so I asked the man (who was sitting next to me) where he is from. Speaking with a heavy accent, he said, "Russia." When they arrived at the technical college (their destination), I said, "Do svidaniya!" (I learned to say goodbye and thank you while in Russia, and I was pretty sure this was the correct salutation.) The younger woman turned and flashed me the most brilliant smile as they disembarked.
The next day, there they were again, and this time the woman came up to me and said, "You speak Russian?" I explained that I only knew two words, other than Da and Nyet, that is, and she told me how to say hello: Zdravstvujtye. When I got home, I explained to Smart Guy about my adventure, and he taught me how to say hello in a way I could remember (he took Russian in college). I also got on YouTube and listened to the pronunciation over and over. The next day I greeted Irina with it (I discovered her name that day), and she was so pleased. This time, she sat next to me and we "talked" together. I learned that she and her husband have been in the United States since mid-November and are from Siberia. She told me the name of her town, but I couldn't even begin to remember it. The older woman is another Russian taking the English class, but they are not related.
Before we had arrived at the college, I ascertained that her daughter lives here and has been in Bellingham for six years. Her daughter has an 18-year-old son and an infant daughter, which I assume is the reason that Irina came here, to help with her newest grandchild. Her grandson went to Russia for two years when he was nine and learned quite a bit of Russian but has forgotten most of it. Irina is practicing her limited English with me, and we are now friends. I look forward to our interaction and I know she does, too. Her husband smiles at me, but she is the one who makes a tremendous effort to speak English with me. She told me she is fifty (she doesn't look it at all). She knew no English when she arrived and is learning quickly, but we use pantomime and laughter to bridge the gap when communication breaks down.
I myself have been helped by strangers to navigate a strange country, and it makes me very happy to listen to Irina's first attempts at speaking English. Knowing that there is no substitution for interaction, I am pleased to have made a new friend from Siberia. Irina has her own little corner of her universe, but she has stepped out into the wider world, and hopefully she will be treated well and will have a good impression of my chosen home town. I realize that she must miss her home and her own country. She hasn't even been here three months and she's already taking classes and interacting with strangers on the bus.
When I contemplate the vast number of people in the world and the number of languages we speak, it's amazing that we can communicate with each other so well. Each of us also feels most at home in a place where we can understand the conversations swirling around us and know the names of the streets and towns nearby, but getting out of our comfort zone and traveling the wider world makes us all better people. That's what I think, anyway.
Now that I am older and have most of my foreign travels behind me, I find comfort and reassurance in reaching out to those fellow travelers and realize that I am at home right here, my own little corner of the universe. I've traveled around and chosen my place, rather than having it given to me. Growing up as a child with no home town, since we lived wherever my father was stationed, I chose Boulder for my first home town, and Bellingham as the town for my retirement years. I think I've chosen well.