Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?
Today we welcome new columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, is about to come out. Marianne contributes a post showing how her love of languages intersects with her love of travel.
At age 55, my husband and I took a “senior year abroad.” We quit our jobs, sold the house, the car and most of our belongings to travel across Europe in search of adventure.
Part of that adventure was physical. Highlights of our 12-month sojourn across 21 countries included running the Paris Marathon and doing a seven-day hike along the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Part of it was about meeting new people and trying new foods.
But for me the adventure also had to do with words. Having always been a “word” person, I was fascinated by the myriad languages we encountered. So often I’ve wondered: Is it possible to overstate the importance of language in forging friendships across borders? And my response has always been, I don’t think so.
Language itself can be a window on the world, one that opens wide when either a common tongue is shared or you look behind the vocabulary of a language other than your own.
In future posts, I’ll look at specific words and expressions, especially those in French, since I’m a Francophile through and through. But for now, I have adapted a few passages from my book that contain a few observations about language that I made during our year abroad. Enjoy!
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The trip from Grindelwald, Switzerland to Chamonix, France, requires four train changes and one bus. As the crow flies, the distance isn’t far, but crossing the Alps can be a multilegged, many-houred proposition.
On one of the neat and tidy Swiss mountain trains, a Japanese couple traveling alone takes their places across from a dapper, middle-aged local gentleman on the banquette seats next to ours. He jumps up to help them with their luggage and once the bags are in place, proceeds to initiate a friendly conversation in Japanese. The look of pure, unadulterated joy on the couple’s faces lights up the train. They’re on their own, far from home, and the serendipity of selecting seats next to someone who speaks their mother tongue is priceless.
Lively conversation among the three fast friends ensues as the Swiss gentleman moves over to sit facing the twosome. He animatedly points to features of the surrounding peaks and comments on the houses we pass by as our train proceeds down the valley. I’m transfixed by the exchange. The travelers laugh, heads nodding and smiles widening, and my heart warms as I imagine the talk turning from our magnificent Alpine surroundings to families, travel, and Japan.
When the train slows for the native son’s stop, they exchange cards and, hands at their sides, quickly bow their goodbyes. Surely the encounter will be one of the most memorable of the visiting couple’s trip.
In Grindelwald, where we’ve arrived for eight days of hiking, we attend an evening barbecue at our hotel in the shadow of the Eiger and meet a couple that hails from Dresden, in the former East Germany. They speak passable English (which was significantly better than our almost nonexistent German). They tell us that nowadays, all schoolchildren learn English from a very early age, but that they didn’t take it up until they were adults. They apologize for their lack of fluency, acknowledging that Russian was the requirement when they were growing up. Subjugators, of course, demand that the subjugated learn their language in a decisive power play.
We end up thoroughly enjoying our outdoor buffet in the company of our new friends, having learned much about their formative years behind the Iron Curtain—all because our companions have breached the language barrier.
Language is key for forging ties across boundaries but it’s a delicate art. We were also amused on occasion during our gap year by the quirky use of English by some of the people we meet.
- I overhear an Italian traveler in a quiet Roman museum triumphantly exclaim when his English friend caught up with him, “The bull has now entered into the china store.”
- Our pretty young guide in Dubrovnik, after she asked us if we were familiar with an anecdote she shared about her city and St. Blaise inquires, “Is that bell not ringing for you?”
Such endearing errors highlight the subtle nature of language and the translation of idioms in particular, but they shouldn’t inhibit us from giving another tongue our best effort. Learning other languages has always helped me listen to and use my own language more carefully and to pay closer attention to expressions that could be difficult to understand by non-native speakers.
I snap back from my linguistic reverie as our Swiss train slows and we pull into the station near the French border. It’s time to transfer to the next train that will drop us at the bus depot for the final leg to Chamonix. We are our way to Provence, where we’ll retreat for the summer.
My heart flutters knowing we’ll soon be back in the promised land of the quintessential romance language—my beloved French—where once again my language window will be open on the world. I may at times speak it like a bull that’s entered into the china store, but le français will always help keep my language bell ringing.
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Thank you, Marianne! How about the rest of you out there? How do you look at languages other than your native tongue: are they an impediment or a lure for overseas travel and/or living adventures? Do let us know in the comments!
Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, will be published in September 2015 (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.
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