I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, February 5, 2012

My little corner of the universe

Unknown women at airport in Skopje
I took a picture of these women while I was waiting to leave Skopje, Macedonia, in April 2009. I didn't ask their permission (I'm sure we didn't speak the same language anyway), and I pretended to be focusing in another direction and snapped it. They enchanted me, just thinking about the focus of their lives, how they spend each day. They must be Muslims, from their head coverings, and matrons, probably mothers or grandmothers. Going from Skopje to somewhere else, obviously friends or relatives, and probably have not traveled much in the world. I was eavesdropping with my camera.

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.


Linda Reeder said...

I agree that travel is a broadening experience. We also like to be tourists in our own country, and when we do we always meet travelers from other countries. We like to engage them in conversation if we can.
Abroad we've only traveled in Europe, and in most places encountered some English. It was very hard when we didn't. And I do recognize the treatment you got in Paris. Restaurants were a problem, the servers are so busy, but we did meet some nice fellow diners who were local.
Did I choose my home or did it choose me? I grew up in rural Oregon. I chose my college in Seattle. From there my first teaching job chose me. But like you, I've always been happy with my choice.

Rita said...

I just love this post, Djan!!

When I was a kid we visited in Canada where they only spoke French, but we could manage to communicate with impromptu sign language and gestures and smiles. It was a strange feeling not to understand anything spoken around you. Today it happens regularly to me in the hallways of my apartment building--LOL! :)

Kindness to strangers is your speciality, I think. ;) She sounds like a wonderful lady!

Rubye Jack said...

Not meaning to be shallow, but I just love those scarves the Macedonian women are wearing, and wish scarves would come back into style again--as the women here are wearing them.

This is a great story of people reaching out to each other DJan. In San Francisco I took public transit a lot and you would hear so many different languages, and when you wanted you could meet so very many different people. It was fun!

Anonymous said...

I love how so many Europeans are multi-lingual. Very impressive. Since Siberia is so close to China and Korea, you should ask your friend if she speaks Chinese or Korean. I studied Russian for one semester in New York in 1970 and got an A for the course. Can't remember much of it, now, though.

June said...

Being surrounded by people who speak an unknown language must be one of the scariest things in life, I think. You're quite a citizen of the world, and savvy about how to navigate. Don't you feel as if you're doing your little bit for world peace?
I think you are.

Red said...

A very eye opening post. We have much to gain from each other and communication is the ticket. You also displayed kindness and interest toward these people and they were only too willing to respond. You are the winner as you learn and understand so much more.
When I delivered papers my supervisor was Filipino. We had some extremely interesting conversations.

Kathryn said...

I love that you are talking to Irina on the bus. Such fun for you and a help to her. She sounds like a pretty fearless person, and it will be interesting to hear more about life in Siberia (I can't imagine, and probably have some very stereotypical pictures in my head).
I always lose a bit of my shyness when speaking with foreigners. I wonder why that is?

Donna B. said...

I am not a world traveler, but I am a world lover of people. I love making conversations with various nationalities or people who look like they need a friend... There is nothing like a bright, happy smile from someone flattered you chose them to speak to...I know it always makes my day when someone smiles or strikes up a conversation.

I have always felt like California was my home...being a native, born in Pasadena, I hope one day to either return or to feel "settled" where I am.

This was yet another wonderful post DJan...I so enjoy the way you express yourself. big hugs...

CrazyCris said...

I've learnt when travelling that you should at the very least learn how to say hello, please and thank you in the local language. Even this tiny effort brings big smiles from the local people who see you making the effort! I've been lucky though, since I speak English, French and Spanish fluently I haven't had much trouble communicating. Except when I was in Poland... for some reason I just couldn't will my brain to remember basic phrases! :p
But then, I've been a bit lazy in my travels, choosing countries where I knew I spoke the language (or their second language was English or French), so I guess that's cheating a bit...

Communication is essential for our survival, and you're an excellent communicator DJan! You remind me of my mom, she's never had trouble communicating with people when travelling, even though she knew nothing of the local language!

Jackie said...

The ultimate gesture of friendship is to communicate, and for you to take the time to not only learn languages but to learn the correct inflection is a reflection of you as a genuine friend.

Judy Cosgrove said...

This post made me realize what a great person you are. I'm lucky to have gotten to be your friend.

Sally Wessely said...

There is much to think about in this post. I love how you are interacting with Irina. Both of you will be enriched because of it. As an ESL teacher, I am always thrilled with others take the time to be a 'conversation partner' with those who are learning English.

I chose to live where I do because I married my husband and this is where he live. My hometown is Colorado Springs. I would rather be living there. At least I am close enough to go up there frequently.

Dee Ready said...

Dear DJan,
What a compelling posting this is. Like Rita, I believe that "kindness to strangers is your speciality." I suspect that you are able to put yourself in the shoes of everyone you meet or under those scarves that Rubye Jack admires. That kind of empathy is what we all need if we are to build the Holy Oneness of All Creation together. I so admire you.



Communication is something I cannot get enough of.
I love that you started up a conversation with the people on the bus. I would have done the same, although I cannot speak any foreign language. I believe we can communicate without words. A smile, a nod, a hug.
One of my good friends is from Russia and when she arrived, I met her that first day, she had two or three words she knew in English. What a pleasure it was for me to watch learn by going to class and from my help after school. I was the winner in that situation.
Blessings to you on this lovely post. Barb

SquirrelQueen said...

DJan, what a wonderful experience. To meet Irina and the others and start a conversation is so exciting as is the prospect of learning from each other.

A few years before I left Anchorage more and more Russian visitors were coming to our city. I managed to learn a few words of the language and wish I had learned more.

When we decided to get involved with the Baja 1000 I decided it was time to brush up on my Spanish. After a time I could carry on a reasonable conversation and it made the experience much more enjoyable. I would hope anyone going to another country would take the time to at least learn a few basic phrases.

CiCi said...

How fun to meet someone from another country. Someone outgoing like you are. We are put in each other's paths for reasons we don't even need to know. I would love to meet you on a bus and chat with you.

It is interesting to hear bits and pieces of some of your travels.

Arkansas Patti said...

I really love how you reached across the bridge of limited language to make someone feel welcome. So many people just wouldn't be bothered and by doing so, you have made an interesting friend.
You have made her new, scary world a much nicer place to live in. Kudos.

Trish said...

Fantastic post. Your travels really have taken you all over the world. I laughed when you talked about trying to learn French - and Spanish clogged up your brain. I was born and raised in Venezuela, and when I took French in high school, Spanish clogged up my brain!

Far Side of Fifty said...

How wonderful for you to have connected with this woman..very interesting..I am sure you can both learn from each other:)

Friko said...

You do have the most marvellous thoughts early on a Sunday morning! They tell me so much about you that I feel that I know the person you are intimately.

We are very fortunate when we find a place where we feel at home. There are people who never feel at home anywhere, probably because they are not 'at home' with themselves. For years I belonged in this category and I still haven't quite settled down in my skin.

It's lovely that you are open and friendly with strangers in your town; your new friend will be grateful for ever; she'll never forget your kindness. You are making it possible for her to feel 'at home'.

Linda Myers said...

I love "meeting the locals" whether they're in my home town or here in San Pablo, Ecuador. I'm noticing my Spanish improving each day - not very much grammatically, but vocabulary-wise. People here are eager to communicate with me in whatever Spanish I have. When we travel to other places where young people study English, they have that same eagerness.

We're all in this world together. Isn't it great?

Elizabeth Grimes said...

You captured a really magical photo. And I love your encounter with the Russian couple. I would love to do more traveling and exploring!

Sandi said...

Hi DJan! It doesn't surprise me in the least that you would not only instigate a conversation with Irina, but that you would become fast friends! I love how willing you are to reach out to your fellow travelers in this life, and I can only imagine how grateful these folks are to come across you!

Unknown said...

Hello; i am visiting via Cici's blog.
I envied your ability to talk to strangers because it is hard for me to do so. I learnt some French a long time ago, but has forgotten to talk in the language, though i can understand some of the words written.
I never had the chance to travel abroad, but i have no desire to do so anyway. Watching the world through tv is enough for me ;)