Last week Tony James Slater, the newest addition to the TDN team, reported on his success with finding love abroad. But it wasn’t always that easy for him. He may be an incurable adventureholic, but when Cupid’s arrow led to a romance with a woman who didn’t speak English, even he had to wonder if there were limits…
Here’s the scenario:
You’re minding your own business in a friendly sort of bar, enjoying the heady mix of cultures as foreigners — a mix of holiday-makers, transients and expats — rub shoulders with the locals.
Suddenly you see him — or her — across the crowded room. This gorgeous individual is staring right at you, smiling seductively. You make contact with those smoldering eyes…and that’s where it ends.
Because she doesn’t speak your language, and you speak none of hers.
So really, what are you going to say to her?
Can romance transcend the language barrier?
It’s a tricky one.
No lo entiendo, mi amor
I have a little experience in this area; once upon a time, when I doing a three-month stint of volunteering at an animal shelter in Ecuador, I fell madly in lust with a gorgeous Latino woman.
Of course she didn’t speak English — there was no one who could for miles in any direction. I spoke no Spanish, because until that moment there had never seemed enough reasons to learn it.
I was captivated by her — she was the kind of exotic beauty you read about in well, the kind of books that I don’t read. Ahem.
So what do you do?
Two obvious tactics spring to mind.
The first is what I did: get horribly drunk and throw yourself at the poor woman, in the hope that you’ll never remember the embarrassment in the morning, if she laughs in your face.
As it happens, this tactic worked — but it should be noted that this is the first time ever, in the history of mankind, that this has been the case. As a rule, I cannot endorse extreme inebriation as a successful method of flirtation; truly, this must have been Cupid himself in action.
The second tactic is to get a friend who does speak both languages to make some kind of introduction. This can help you get over that incredibly awkward initial stage when neither of you is really sure if the other is genuinely interested.
This is the tactic I should have used, as I had a perfectly good friend with the requisite language skills. Of course by the time I’d thought of that, I was already too drunk to pronounce even English words. It was quite a way down the road when I finally got to communicate in words with my new lover, through an interpreter.
At that point, it was great to have it confirmed that she felt the same way about me as I felt about her!
It was slightly less great to discover that she was already married and had two children. But then, that’s the chance you take when you practice tactic no.1.
Thankfully, she was separated from her husband — although as our relationship progressed, I did hear some disturbing rumors that her husband was looking for me…with a machete. I fervently hoped that was just my boss trying to wind me up. (If it was, he succeeded!)
Pidgin Spanish and pantomime…are there limits?
Although she was beautiful, the thought of meeting her again terrified me anew each time. I felt like such an idiot, struggling to express myself in pidgin Spanish and pantomime. I lived in fear of those awkward moments, when neither of us could make the other understand some fundamental issue.
That said, it definitely motivated me to learn Spanish! After every date I’d come back fired up with the desire to study. I never did any studying, of course — my day job (mucking out animal cages) kept me way too busy for that — but the desire was there. The desire, in fact, had never been a problem!
But how far can a relationship really go, when you don’t even have a language in common? Think how close you can get to someone in a long-term relationship; a connection bordering on the psychic, where you’re almost reading each other’s minds — it just doesn’t work when you’re constantly guessing at what the other person is saying.
The Austrian-British language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked:
The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
If he is right, then isn’t the lack of a shared language the very essence of incompatibility?
Relationship experts the world over agree that couples must work hard to bridge communication gaps. Well, when the gaps of linguistic understanding are wide enough to fly a 747 through — and it can feel like a long-distance relationship even when you’re standing next to each other — bridge-building can be something of a challenge.
My Ecuadorian love and I were together three months, after which I left to fly back home. Ironically, we’d each learned just enough of each other’s languages to really get to know each other’s thoughts, hopes, fears and frustrations — the day before my flight to England.
I’d like to open it up to the floor at this point!
Has anyone got any experience of this that they wouldn’t mind sharing? Or an opinion, on whether or not it’s possible?
Can love really conquer all — including that ultimate bad guy of cross-cultural barriers, linguistics?
What do you think?
I’d love to know!
TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.
STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, a review of Matt Krause’s memoir recounting how he met a woman on a plane — and followed her all the way to Turkey! NOTE: Subscribers to our weekly DISPLACED DISPATCH are eligible to win a free, autographed copy!
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