The young man behind the counter rang up the few items I managed to grab to make myself a quick dinner for my first night in Bulgaria. He said something to me that I didn’t understand. Exhausted and not registering what was going on, I simply gazed back at him with a blank stare. He repeated his question, this time holding up a plastic bag. Snapping back into reality I nodded my head finally managing to get words out,
“Sí! I mean yes. ¡Ay mi madre! I don’t even know what language I’m supposed to be speaking!”
I slammed the palm of my hand against my forehead as the guy simply smiled and continued with the transaction. When he got out a calculator to type out the total and showed me how much I owed, I realized that he didn’t speak any English and he must have thought I was a crazy person the way I rattled on to myself saying yes in every language except for the language belonging to the country I was presently in.
Four months. Eight countries. Nine if you count my short side trip to the United States. All which means exposure to nine different languages. At first it didn’t seem like much of a thing going to different countries and being exposed to different languages but there was something about getting to month four of my journey where my brain just started to hurt from trying to remember all the words that I’ve learned across the different languages and which language they belonged to. I tried to think back on the words I had learned in my first two months and couldn’t recall anything. For the most part, I’ve been able to get by fairly easily. A lot of people in the different places that we’ve gone to speak some English and if not, we seem to get by ok with pointing, smiling and hand gestures. I don’t want to assume everyone speaks English but I have found myself at a point lately where I just don’t even speak at all. I just stare back confused and can barely remember the English words to say, “Sorry, I only speak English.”
I do enjoy trying to learn at least a few words to try to be considerate of the culture in which I am visiting. In each city that we have visited, we’ve usually had an opportunity to take at least one class that gives us a short lesson on some of the most common words and phrases like “good day,” “please,” “thank you,” “goodbye,” and most importantly, “cheers.” In our lesson in Bulgarian, Laura our Experience Manager for Sofia told us that the people enjoy when you try to say some words in their language because even if you don’t say it well, it sounds cute to them, which I have definitely found to be true.
One evening back in Sofia, I went to dinner with my friends Nick and Nate. We wandered the streets for a bit and ended up choosing a place because we were fascinated by the decor. When the woman brought us our drinks, I looked at her and said, “blagodaria,” or at least I attempted to say thank you in Bulgarian. The smile that spread across that woman’s face was priceless. She smiled and repeated the word and then said, “molia.” Eventually throughout the night we kept saying that one word to her with every single thing she set down on the table.
“Blagodaria. Blagodaria. Blagodaria.”
You would think that after the first few times it would get old and she would think to herself, I get it. You can say thank you. But she loved it and she seemed to get happier and happier each time we said the word to her. She even started waiting expectantly for us to say it each time she came over before she would grin from ear to ear and carry on with her work.
I can’t say that everyone I encounter gets that excited or amused when I try to say thank you in their language but I definitely get the occasional surprised looks and amused smiles with each attempt. Even now that I am in Serbia, I’m finding similar reactions. We’ll exchange a few words in English to complete a transaction and as I leave, I’ll say “hvala” which is frequently followed up with a big grin and sometimes even a small giggle. They’ll then chatter on and say some other words in their language I don’t know but I can only assume mean “you’re welcome” or “goodbye.” Note to self: I should probably learn those words.
Despite the confusion and challenge to keep all the languages straight when traveling, I will say that it’s worth the effort and adds to the experience of traveling in foreign countries when trying to learn a few words in a new language. Either way, I’m probably better off just saying anything rather than staring back blankly with a confused look on my face. Afterall, I’m a grown woman. I should probably use my words.
Lovely reflections – and so true.
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