As we approach two years since we first planned our twice cancelled, COVID-cursed trip to Germany/Austria/Hungary/Czech Republic, and we dare envision another rescheduling for Fall, 2022, I am taking stock of my diminishing mental capacity, especially where foreign languages are concerned. I am still royally stuck at the very bottom of the Chinese 101 class, even as my high school French rapidly recedes in the rear view mirror of my brain. Like playing piano and parallel parking, it’s becoming quite clear that I will never achieve competence, much less mastery.
As a traveler, I realize that English is the Open Sesame to most places on earth, but how do I meaningfully communicate with someone who is haltingly expressing him/herself to me, yet also obviously letting loose with a fluent cascade of words with friends? Everywhere I go, these same folks chatting to one another rapid-fire in their native tongues are, I assume, mocking me. “She just asked for a poached book!” they will chortle. “And did you hear her massacre ‘buona notte’? Hilarious!”
But I recently discovered a lovely little film that tackles language barriers head on (and removes said barriers). “En Route” tells three short stories of train passengers who don’t speak one another’s languages, yet come to understand each other in profound ways. A crying British baby is soothed by the magic tricks of a Roma woman. Two melancholy people, a young Assyrian man and an older German woman, intuit each other’s emotions while sitting across from one another in a train compartment. In the most delightful segment, an animated deaf couple helps a befuddled young Asian traveler head in the right direction to Genova.
Would that life was like that magical train trip! We humans would be able to transcend our misunderstandings and help one another along life’s journey. Such a shame that could never happen! But wait…
What if we looked at language, not as a private club for the cognoscenti, but as a convenient short cut to comprehension—and not always really necessary? What if we realized that we can all easily find workarounds, even when we don’t know the grammar or syntax? Babies have no problem making their feelings known, right? And last time I checked, newborn infants do not yet speak the King’s English, but darned if their parents don’t know precisely when it’s time for a feeding or a change! For us older people, gestures and facial expressions work wonders, especially when paired with an intense desire to be understood.
We are all en route, on life’s mystical train, destined for the future. Our traveling companions hail from all over, and at first communication can be tricky. But as our journey goes on, we discover our ways to connect, don’t we?
So, as I once again spread out the European travel brochures, and stress about the foreign street signs and menu items, let me rest assured that we humans will always find our way through the world.
One family. Understood.