The London Why (Part One)

posted in: Day In The Life 18
The file for this image of ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ by William Henry Brooke in 1817 notes that it Brooke sketched it “on the spot.” Waterloo Bridge crosses the Thames and I crossed the bridge a few days ago. Image: Wikipedia.


I do not have a desire to travel the world.

It’s only been in the past year that I figured out why this might be, and only a matter of months that I’ve been brave enough to admit it.

It’s not something a person is supposed to say. When the “What would you do if you only had a year to live?” question is posed, we’re expected to get a dreamy look on our faces as we picture ourselves meandering through Moroccan spice markets, skiing through Switzerland, eating caviar in Red Square. We’re expected to want to explore everywhere that is not here, wherever “here” is, the argument being that world travel makes you smarter, more compassionate, more interesting; everyone wants to be described as cosmopolitan, someone “at ease in faraway lands, with an exciting and glamorous character associated with travel and a mixture of cultures.”

To be ambivalent about wanting to see the world is to be seen as too simple to grasp the importance — the necessity, even — of doing whatever you can to crisscross the globe before you’re dead. And watch out, because being pitied is a best-case scenario: The real danger here is that you’ll be labeled a xenophobe, which is one of the worst things a person can be. “Xenophobe” isn’t 100 percent synonymous with “racist”, but it’s real close.

Much to my relief (and yours, no doubt), it is my admiration of and fascination with people who grew up in cultures other than my own that is behind my reason for not needing to travel the world. It comes down to one simple thing:

It’s language.

If I can’t speak the language of a place — and aside from having survival Spanish, you can bet I can’t — I’m miserable.

Language is as fundamental to the shape of a country as the indelible lines of its border. A people’s language nourishes the people who speak, read, and write it, and as they do, they turn the words and phrases over and over across centuries until their language is a smooth, polished stone, carried and shared within their culture. The language of a place is the code for its literature, its science and medicine, its faith and prayer. Language puts words to experience, which is to say that it is experience itself. To experience a place without access to its language is, to me, no way to experience a place at all.

One of the most distressing aspects of this, for me anyway, is that without being able to fluently speak the language of a country while I’m in it, I am locked out of the humor of its people. This is disastrous. Sure, the language of pratfalls is universal, but delighting in the way someone plays with entendre, rhyme, puns; the structure of a great joke and the syntactical eccentricities of the teller, the timing — this is the stuff of humor, and outside of love, humor is the only thing that makes life bearable. What people find funny — and I mean really, really funny — is everything. If you want to truly be with someone, or a nation of someones (and this is the only way I ever want to be with anyone), you must understand nuance. If I can’t read a sign on a shop door that says “Back in 5 minutes”, how am I to have a nuanced experience with a place? How can I truly be in a foreign land without being able to speak the language(s) there?

Some of you might say, “Well, Mary, then study some languages! You’re young.”

You are very generous, but I am no longer officially young. I’m 41, and if a woman is not a polyglot by my age, she’s probably not going to be one. Yes, I could still learn Arabic before I die — and I would love to, and German, and Norwegian, the language of my ancestors — but if I were serious about it, I could do nothing else. My life would have to be that of a full-time student for the next who-knows-how-many years and as much as I’d like to travel the world and finally be there, upending my whole life so that I can appreciate the best knock-knock joke in the Sahara seems like a lot of work.

Here’s the thing: I have had the privilege to visit a couple other countries, namely Italy, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Germany, and England. And in all but that last one, I have found myself sad and suffocated much of the time. I don’t want to have just a few words to communicate with someone. I want to use more than the blunt instruments of “yes” and “no” and “thank you” and “no thank you” when communicating with another a human being and I do not want to force everyone I come into contact with — while I’m in their house — to speak English so that I can get around and feel comfortable. Why should they have to do all the heavy lifting just because I was born in a country that expects them to learn my language, but has never insisted that I learn theirs? On my soil, okay, we can speak English and I would love to, because I want to know everything. But when I’m in your country, I ought to speak your language and though I desperately wish I could, I can’t.

A philosopher said once that “Having a second language is like having a second soul.” I want like, 50 souls, but I only have one. And the one I have knows that language is her life raft. Without it, she drowns. In a foreign country. And she doesn’t know how to ask to use the bathroom. And she can’t read the poetry. And she can’t go see stand-up. And she can’t tell the difference between a sad love song and a song about someone who died. And she orders fermented mung bean soup when she thought she was ordering delicious cake. She knows she is supposed think all of this is mind-expanding, but she doesn’t think that. She thinks it sucks.

She’d give anything to read the plaques on the old city’s walls and marvel at the history of the country. She’d give anything to read a book written in the country’s mother tongue and understand something deep and fundamental about the place. She wants to exchange pleasantries with the kid at the bakery where she gets the bread every day and she wants to ask if there is coconut in the custard because she’s allergic, and she wants to understand that this pastry has coconut but that one doesn’t, and she want to be able to buy several of the second kind, thank you very much, and she wants to use exact change at the till.

She wants to not just understand the jokes; she wants to tell them. She wants to be in a foreign country where everything is different and she has the words to figure it out.

Enter England, stage right.

18 Responses

  1. Liz Flaherty
    | Reply

    I agree with you! I can’t even do survival Spanish, although I’ll be happy to greet you and wish you Happy Birthday in high school German. I’d still like to see the world, but I need a translator to do it.

  2. Terri
    | Reply

    Finally! Thank you for expressing your need not to travel the world. I feel the exact same way…only when I have confessed this to friends, they look at me as though there was something seriously wrong with me. I have actually traveled a fair bit of the world and have felt the same kinds of feelings and frustrations you expressed very eloquently. My personal world is still very large, challenging and intriguing despite the pandemic or maybe because of it. I still feel like I have worlds to explore within my own personal sphere.

  3. Beverly
    | Reply

    You are so talented, you bring joy to so many. I pray for joy in your life.

  4. Lauren Matheson
    | Reply

    I still feel this way and I have lived as an expatriate longer than I was ever a local. The deep beauty of a new language, the wellspring of its speakers’ reality, is revealed in snippets as you live in it imperfectly. You learn poetry parallel to the word for coconut. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

  5. Marlene Ingraham
    | Reply

    Mary, you definitely speak *my* language. Mono-linguality (is that even a word?) is one of my biggest regrets in life, and I envy and admire all who aren’t as stunted as I. Maybe because you are so good with our native tongue, it’s that much harder to adopt another?

  6. Di Gross
    | Reply

    Mary, you have such a gift! I so so so enjoy everything you write. Thank you.

  7. Noreen A Bernard
    | Reply

    I love This!!! Thank You…….

  8. pat mainster
    | Reply

    Thank you for your words.

  9. Lee McLean
    | Reply

    “I am locked out of the humor of its people” – I totally get this. Language is key. I did a week of French immersion a while ago, and I realized that I desperately wanted to be able to be clever, make a joke, layer what I was saying in that language. I wanted to be on the inside. Good for you recognizing that being there isn’t enough.

  10. Jay Porter
    | Reply

    Mary – as a diplomat who travels the world (and ironically is currently posted to London – we should get coffee!), I love your perspective. Even those of us who spend our lives traveling to far-flung places can sympathize with the same frustrations you paint. Perhaps not surprisingly, I dream of settling down somewhere lovely and quaint in rural America. I pine for the familiarity of running into the same people at the post office or grocery store for years and years, to watch my kids and theirs grow old, and often think about how nice it would be to belong. Travel can be marvelous, not least because it makes you long for home.

  11. Dee Ahonen
    | Reply

    Thank you! I’m done with traveling & I’m okay with it. Having lived one college school year in England was sufficient. I’ve been back overseas twice but now I’m good. I’m more than good I’m satiated.

  12. Ann
    | Reply

    These are the words of a born communicator. Do not apologize! I, on the other hand, would like to go to an indefinable number of countries and do sign language…just for the “bon appetit” of it. It’s rare that people get my jokes even in the USA…but the food! Mange bene! Lass uns essen! It’s universal. I guess that makes me a…born eater?

  13. Dallas D
    | Reply

    I get it. Feel the same in some ways. I’d go live somewhere for 6 months rather than hit it on a grand tour with only 2 days there before moving on.

  14. Elizabeth Sonnenfeld
    | Reply

    Sorry Mary, I don’t feel the way you do but the desire to travel was in me since I was a teenager. I grew up in Poland and came to the US when I was 18 not speaking a word of English. Of course when you are 18 and have no choice but to learn a language for survival if nothing else, you learn quickly. I was pretty fluent within a few years.
    Back to travel. I love, love it so much. Since I don’t speak any languages except Polish and English, I use a translator during my trips by choosing escorted travel. This way I get to know some if not all of the culture and intricacies of the country.

  15. Kathy Callahan
    | Reply

    Yes I understand about the language. Even living in Germany for nearly four years did not make me fluent since I worked in an American hospital. But we still have good friends in Germany that we visit.
    I think I am more a visual person. The landscapes, how things are laid out, and the incredible architecture and skill of the craftsmen (mostly from the past but some present as well) are the things I delight in. The tile work of different countries is impressive. Charming little villages dotting the countryside. These are the things that inspire me.
    Of course we have wonderful, awe inspiring landscapes in the US to explore as well.

  16. Linda
    | Reply

    I love to travel. I would say because I love history. To me to stand in a place where people stood 500 years ago is spiritual to me. To see the great wonders of the world touches my heart. There are all types of language. I find it in smiles, head nods, hand gestures. Communication comes in many forms.

  17. Christi
    | Reply

    Sorry if you want to travel nowadays there is a simple app just download it and go. It will translate for you. Never let anything stop you. Just go and do it.

  18. Daisy
    | Reply

    As an expat in a country with a different mother tongue, I have so many mung-bean-soup-and-cake stories. My life is richer for them, but I am lucky and have no allergies. Occasionally I have to communicate in hand gestures and preschool words; as a highly-educated person, the humility is crushing. Yet in those moments, I have become more compassionate and understanding of myself and others. I don’t think everyone has to like travel though, and I think I get what you’re prefacing here… Yet this made me reflect on how how much fun it is for me to go some place new where I might end up with coconut in my pastry. By the way, you have an open invitation to visit me in Norway – you could easily have a lecture tour here. There are loads of quilters who would enjoy hearing you speak!

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