I’m sure I’m like everyone else when preparing to travel abroad. I too always have the typical concerns. Will I be able to communicate? Will I be able to read a menu? What will I do if I have to hail a cab or ask for directions? As a general rule and out of respect for local culture I always try to learn a few local words. It’s not only practical, but it’s polite. It can also be fun as you prepare for your trip. As a Travel Agent, it’s one of the first things I advise people who are travelling abroad to do. Not only as a courtesy to the local people but because you never know when you’ll need help with directions or other practical questions. Sometimes it’s a fairly simple procedure. In Europe, you can hail a taxi, give the name of the hotel and be pretty sure that you’ll wind up at the correct destination. Since Europeans use a familiar alphabet and so many words have migrated into our own daily lexicon you should be able to handle a map or subway system with minimal issue. However, in some Eastern European countries, the language is more challenging than the more common “Romance Languages” of Western Europe. Romance languages have their origins based upon Latin and share similarities across multiple countries. We also share a familiar alphabet and have probably been introduced to the more common phrases at some time. Parlez vous Francais? This previous exposure offers comfort and gives a starting frame of reference for figuring out pronunciation. Further, the Czech language is Slavic in origin and uses letter combinations that are foreign to an English speaker. Despite the challenge, I made the attempt to learn some words that would indicate that l had basic manners and that I cared enough to try. I went over armed with the confidence that I would be able to say “Hello” (dobry’ den), “please” (prosi’m) and “thank you” (dekuju). I certainly wasn’t proficient enough to carry on a conversation, but a handful of prepared words could eventually get you most of the answers you needed. Usually, the person I was addressing would at this point switch to English. However, while at a banquet, I was surprised by what I considered to be the rudeness of some of the servers. As I stood in line waiting to be served I was attempting to determine what was in a particular dish. The young man behind the table waved his hand, shook his head as if to say “no” and then walked away from me. I was surprised given all the other positive encounters I had already experienced. I was ready to chalk it up as an aberration but then it happened again, and then again. No matter what I asked the answer was the same: “no”. It took me a while but I finally figured out that what they were trying to convey was that they didn’t speak any English. They weren’t saying no to me they were just saying that they didn’t understand. Lesson learned to not judge someone on a very narrow set of circumstances.
Visiting Asia can also be linguistically challenging. The number one rule to remember is that very few taxi drivers speak or read English. The number two rule is to grab the hotel’s business card before you go off to see the sights. I’m not normally a rule breaker but for some reason I broke both rules in Korea. After a full day of wandering around I was tired, hungry and completely lost. Worst of all, I couldn’t remember the name of my hotel. Definitely a bad combination! I tried to stay calm and remember the name of the hotel. That didn’t go so well. I tried to ask for help from people on the street but wasn’t very successful at finding anyone who spoke English. I thought I hit pay dirt when I got the attention of two local students. They were more than willing to help, if only I could tell them where I needed to go. When I couldn’t, they very eagerly tore pages from a local phone book at a telephone booth and handed me the “Hotels” section. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t remember the name of the hotel and didn’t want to start calling hotel front desks to ask “excuse me, but am I staying with you?” Out of desperation, I headed to the nearest underground train station to see if I could find any English speaking people. I was just about to give up when I spotted someone who also looked like a visitor. It turned out that he was an Officer with the U.S. Army who was on leave and visited Korea regularly. I introduced myself and explained my predicament. He wasn’t just an Officer, he was also a gentleman and was willing to help me. I was able to tell the Officer the general vicinity of my originating train station and he was able to offer the names of several hotels in that area. With tremendous relief, I recognized one of the named hotels. This kind sir hailed a cab on my behalf and told the driver where to take me, closed the cab door and I was off. Lesson learned. Only after I was on my way back to the hotel did I realize that I neglected to thank the serviceman who had gone well above the regular call of duty. I fretted about that for the rest of my trip. But, sometimes fate hands you a second chance and this time it gave me the opportunity I had missed the first time. Seated aboard a very full flight we were waiting for a few extra passengers before pushing back from the gate. Coming down the aisle was the Officer who had helped me, this time in full uniform. I waited until he had stored his carry on and was seated, and got up and took this second chance to say what I should have said the first time: “Thank you!”