Puzzled in Poland: Tales of Coping with a Language Barrier

Ask someone why they would not like to travel alone in a foreign-speaking country. The answer will most likely be because they are scared, or because they do not want to feel lonely. Ask them what they’re scared of and they’ll probably say being kidnapped or getting lost. They will probably not mention the more immediate, everyday emotions and situations that people tend to be afraid of: the confusion when you’re on a bus and aren’t completely sure when you should get off; the daunting feeling of entering a room with an awareness that you are not proficient in the local language; the alarm when a stranger starts speaking to you and you have no comprehension of what they’re saying; the potential loneliness when everyone around you is laughing or debating about something in another language and you can’t participate.

Before visiting a foreign-speaking country, I always ensure I know a few key words and phrases, such as “Yes”, “No”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry”, “‘I don’t understand”, “I don’t speak…do you speak English?” Even if the recipient speaks your language, this gesture of making an effort in their language can help foster good relations. But of course, these are not conversational terms and you will still be left clueless as to what people are talking about most of the time. However during a visit to Poland in autumn 2016, I began to see the funny and advantageous side of having a language barrier in a foreign country.

Sightseeing

On the Sunday morning of a weekend in Kraków with my co-sister-in-law, we visited Wawel Cathedral. The queue was extremely long and snatches of conversation apparently suggested ticket sales were about to end for the Royal State Rooms. My sister went to inquire inside and came back grinning. In a moment of jamminess, two South American ladies with spare tickets had overheard her asking about the probability of getting tickets within the next hour and offered her their spares. One of the ladies was an architect working in Warsaw and proficiently explained in Polish the origins behind the royal tapestries and regal pieces of furniture. It’s quite rare for someone from Latin America to speak Polish, and it was refreshing that this was the language of choice over English. I would stand with little idea of what they were saying, smiling and nodding at what seemed like the right times.

The funniest point is when people suddenly start laughing. Laughter is contagious and it’s an instinct to join in…except when the laughter is about something you can’t understand, people will look at you with a puzzled expression and you’ll feel like a Ben Stiller character.

At the same time, and, rude as it may sound, having a language barrier can bring a sense of liberty. There is no obligation to pay attention and contribute, but instead the freedom to wander around in your own world.

Yoga Classes

A few days after my Kraków trip, my sister-in-law invited me along to a yoga class. It would be my first experience of yoga but with traffic congested, we were running late. I suddenly felt a slight build-up of butterflies, flashbacks to when I was a child  turning up late to my first session with a swimming club not knowing anyone, or feeling self-conscious as a teenager walking into a party already in full swing.  But I was older now and more used to new situations.

We entered the studio with four other participants already making shapes (so much for going to the back!) and were thrown straight in to abnormal stretches. Oblivious to what was going on, I would glance around the room and attempt to mimic the poses, with my sister-in-law whispering occasional instructions. Sometimes I would close my eyes to help me maintain a pose while the instructor kept talking, only to look up and notice that everyone now had their legs over their head and so forth.

The instructor had trained in California and could speak English. She would approach me with calm whispers of “Focus on your breathing – in and out through the nose.” ‘But I might collapse!’ I thought as I attempted to stick one leg straight out behind me while putting my hands in the praying position to my chest and twisting my head up towards the ceiling.

I then found myself in what I can only describe as the ‘Giving Birth’ position. Lying on my back with my legs spread far open, the instructor slowly attempted to ease them further apart. With eyes wide like a baby rabbit staring into the open mouth of a fox, I smiled up at her pathetically, hoping she wouldn’t snap my legs off…and be too disgusted by the condition of my feet. (Manicures and pedicures appear to be a big thing in Poland.)

By the end of the class, my brain and body was destroyed. However I went again a week later and saw a definite improvement in my ability to hold some stretches. I even started recognising the Polish words the instructor was using to count and say “hold” etc.

Dog Shows

I also had my first experience of a dog show in Poland, when my brother and his wife took their two dogs to two competitions in one weekend. Over two days, I got a glimpse into the snobby, two-faced world that is dog shows. Imagine a row of poodles, Old English Sheepdogs, and Chihuahuas on tables having their fur blow-dried, curled or straightened. Imagine big men in tracksuits blowing whistles and shouting commands at their Alsatian as it gallops recklessly around a ring with the handler hanging on for dear life. Imagine smarmy judges reducing owners to tears with their arrogant, disapproving comments about a dog’s features. Imagine owners casting you filthy looks if your dog so much as glances at theirs. (Any slight scuff of contact can stimulate verbal wars.)

I was put on dog-and-baby-holding-duty, the latter inviting some curious looks which I was relieved didn’t lead to anything more. (My brother later joked that, based on typical Polish culture, most people were probably thinking I was too old, rather than too young, to have a baby.) When holding the dogs however, people would sometimes approach wanting to stroke them, occasionally asking questions. I could only smile and nod. On the second day I noticed one of the dogs trying to smell the bag of another owner sat near us. The owner later turned and said something to me with a facial expression that I found hard to interpret. I later found out he had been complaining about the dog’s alleged salivation on his bag. Being oblivious, I wasn’t able to feel bothered by anything he said.

This is where a language barrier can be beneficial, because of the desensitisation it brings to verbal interactions that might otherwise upset you. Another example of when I’ve appreciated language ignorance for this reason comes from Portugal, when I would walk down the street and males would make what seemed like, based on their body language and facial expressions, sexual comments towards me.

There are of course disadvantages to this specific scenario of a language barrier though, in that you can’t apologise for any bad actions you’ve committed unaware. This dog owner probably didn’t appreciate me smiling as he grumbled about my dog…but hey, I didn’t see any saliva anywhere.

Great Grandparents

My sister-in-law’s grandma speaks very little English. We stayed at hers over the weekend we went to the dog show, and as she showed me my room, she would mutter away in Polish as if not realising the extent of  just how unproficient I am at the language. I would make enthusiastic “mmm” noises and say “piękny” (pretty) whenever she pointed at something and looked at me. Then there was the time when I was holding my nephew after he’d started crying. I finally managed to soothe him with some cheerful singing (Motown genre, to be precise) and looked out into the garden as his head flopped onto my shoulder. Then I sensed a new presence in the room, heard the approaching steps of the grandma sneaking up behind. I glanced around and saw her with her arms reached out expectantly, looking at her great-grandson with calculating glee, like a sugar-addict entering an empty candy shop. I had no choice but to relinquish him, watching her walk away with the despondent feeling of someone on a TV show who just had the prize they won stolen off them by another contestant.

Birthday Parties

One evening, my brother’s neighbour invited us over for a birthday dinner, which involved eating roasted pumpkin with honey for dessert (very tasty). While guests would talk to me in English now and then, naturally the conversation would soon revert back to Polish. Again I faced the challenge of smiling at the right time, but there was also the added challenge of refusing food offerings resolutely. Polish people are extremely hospitable and enjoy feeding others…a lot. I felt my stomach ballooning to the point of discomfort but felt rude saying no when someone mentioned in English that they’d made the cake themselves. Even if I said no, minutes later they would only hold the plate under my nose with encouraging nods.  “Pyszne,” (delicious) I would say with a thumbs up as I forced the food down my throat.

Then there came the biggest challenge: the singing of “Happy Birthday”. My solution to this seemed to be standing with my mouth half open, nodding my head from side to side in time with the tune, trying to guess when the person’s name was about to be mentioned so I could jump in and contribute at least one word.

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There will always be times when not knowing the local language leads to stressful situations. But having a language barrier can also be highly entertaining and create fond memories. It also reinforces the value of patience, good manners, initiative, and observation – attributes useful in any environment, no matter what languages you speak.

 

Please share your hilarious language barrier stories below!

A Change of Perspective: Returning to Warsaw in 2015

The first time I visited Warsaw was in October 2012 for a wedding. On a morning trip to the Old Town, a bleak sky took a little life out of the town buildings, merging their pastel colours into a blend of blandness. If you closed your eyes and listened to sounds of horse hoofs clomping on the cobbled streets, you could imagine being in the era of Soviet rule, hunched figures hurrying through the drizzle to buy their bread before rushing back home to their duties. Driving to the local salon to get my hair done for the ceremony, I remember pulling up outside a run-down building with peeling paint, the smoking staff scowling up at the cloudy sky. The weather had dimmed the mood of the town and its subsequent memorability.

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Fast forward to June 2015 and I was back in the capital on a brighter day. Driving past the hair salon, the sun shone on a freshly-painted building complete with a new sign and clean windows. Traffic levels boomed on the long weekend as people drove into the capital for a sunny day out. Status appears to be important in Poland as it strives to distance itself from its Communist connotations and develop into a more prosperous country with a greater preference for Western lifestyles. If you have money, you buy a fancy car. Branded clothing and accessories that many English people would find tacky are sought after here. Whilst many Londoners dream of a country mansion where they can work from home and avoid the urban grind, city life is the ideal in Poland, and the countryside is for the peasants. As someone who grew up in the countryside and gets frustrated with life in the city, this view is intriguing to me.

It never ceases to amaze me how influential the sun can be psychologically on one’s attitude towards a place. Summer scenes were vastly different from those I had seen in the autumn nearly three years ago. Approaching the Old Town, the buildings stood strikingly against the perfect blue sky, looking incredibly rich in colour like skin bronzed from the sun’s rays. Tourists in shorts and dresses ambled around slowly in a warm state of relaxation, the only sense of rush in the area being from the kids jumping around in excitement trying to pop the bubbles that ballooned from a man’s bucket. There was more energy around the place since I was last there, but less tension at the same time. People moved slower, but more progressively too.

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A group of runners milled around doing calf stretches and lunges as we looked for a restaurant to eat at. ‘Zapiecek’ is the place to go for traditional Pierogi – deep-fried dumplings stuffed with cheeses, vegetables or meats. Sat outside under white umbrellas, little conversation was exchanged between diners. Instead people sat lazily, smoking pensively or reading the newspaper. I drank a dried fruit compote whilst the waitresses stood in the doorway in their red and blue aprons, basking in the sunshine. 091 095 099

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Then as I was eating, a young girl of about 12 approached our table and asked for some change, none of which I had. Seeing her be ignored by the diners around me made me feel slightly uncomfortable, as I began to consider how increased prosperity makes members of society change their perspective towards the lesser fortunate. It made me think of those real-life rags-to-riches stories you hear about, and question whether these people really do stay humble, or if they inevitably become too embarrassed to acknowledge their past and those people growing up in situations similar to the one they did.

Destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War, Warsaw has had to renovate itself dramatically. Whilst it doesn’t have the number of tourist attractions or social venues to be found in London, I find that this simplicity makes the capital attractive. Hopefully the increasingly Westernised perspective that the country now holds towards consumer and lifestyle choices won’t make it sacrifice the quiet, modest charm of areas like the Old Town for big brands and brash buildings.

Communicating through Different Languages

Languages are commonly noted as a cause of difficulty when travelling. How are we supposed to know where we’re going if we can’t read a sign? How are we supposed to understand people telling us something in a foreign language? How are we supposed to be understood ourselves? Afterall, we can’t and shouldn’t assume that everyone we encounter can speak English. English-speaking travellers are fortunate in that most countries have English versions of documents and signage. However, there are inevitably moments when no translation is available and one finds himself frozen in speech, blocked by a barrier. This isn’t always a bad thing though; instead, it can teach us to use body language to express our thoughts and emotions. There is something heart-warming about ‘conversing’ with strangers without opening your mouth.

As a bridesmaid at a Polish wedding a couple of years ago, I was taken to a local hairdressers before the ceremony to get my hair done. I’ve always had long hair and my mum has always been my hairdresser (as well as my taxi-driver, nurse etc), therefore I was slightly anxious about how this would turn out.  A fellow bridesmaid drove the two of us down the highway before we turned off and entered a quiet village. Pulling up outside a small salon, a group of ladies stood outside smoking, leaning lazily against a wall with peeling paint. The oldest had platinum blonde hair tied back in a tight bun, and was accompanied by four girls who looked around my age. As I got out of the car they stood upright, surveying me curiously like prisoners checking out the latest arrival. I smiled a ‘hello’ nervously as my acquaintance explained what we’d like done, before following her tentatively inside. The blonde lady gestured to a chair and I sat down, feeling twitchy like a criminal waiting to be questioned. I found it quite daunting to allow a stranger who I could not issue with verbal instructions to have physical power over something that represents such a strong part of my identity. I gulped upon feeling the lady’s long, painted fingernails run through my wavy strands, but as she began massaging shampoo into my scalp, I began to relax.

Soon it was time to move to the other chair and my apprehensions returned. I approached it as if it was electric, unsure what the outcome would be. The lady opened her mouth to speak and then caught herself, remembering that I didn’t speak Polish. We looked at each other through the mirror as she gathered my hair into a bunch and moved it up the back of my head, wanting to know how high I wanted my bun. “Tak!” I said with a thumbs up, and she nodded her acknowledgement. Then she repeated this physical demonstration to ascertain how much volume I wanted on top.

As the lady played with my hair, I found myself unsure of where to look. I didn’t want to just stare at myself in the mirror the whole time, but I was unable to begin a conversation with the girls, and the other bridesmaid was busy chatting with her hairdresser. Instead, I looked down at my lap, playing with my hands and occasionally flashing glances at the girls in an attempt to assess how things were going. As if noticing my awkward discomfort, the lady doing my hair uttered something to one of the girls, who nodded obediently and turned around. On her return, she placed a bowl of chocolates in front of me, looking at me with a side-glance to them before backing away and putting her hands behind her back shyly. I smiled my thanks, unsure whether it was just a polite gesture or they actually wanted me to take one. Seeing the girl glance at me with embarrassment, I instinctively leaned forward and unwrapped the purple paper, enjoying the sight of her blush as I smiled and nodded a ‘delicious’.

Suddenly the lady’s hands stopped still. I looked up in the mirror with my mouth full of chocolate to see her looking at my hair uncertainly, biting her lip. The girls stood warily around her, eyes fixed fearfully on my hair as if it was about to explode. A sense of unease surged through me and I worried that if I attempted to swallow, I might start choking. What was wrong? The woman frowned in concentration and I could only sit helplessly wondering what she was doing back there, imagining her cursing the thickness of my hair. A few anxious minutes later, she stepped back and breathed out with a smile of relief. I returned it hesitantly. Then she got a mirror and held it up so I could see the finished result, checking my reaction with wide eyes of hope. It was exactly what I had wanted, and I flashed her a (double) hands up to show my approval, to which she beamed proudly. “The lady says you have beautiful hair,” the other bridesmaid told me. In the mirror the bridesmaids were looking at me and I said “Dziękuje” with a bashful smile.

The ladies waved us off with big smiles, looking rejuvenated. As a new face, I had made their day interesting (and challenging!)

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During the next summer, I spent some time travelling around Iceland. During my travels, I exchanged a smile and wave of recognition with members of a Chinese family after seeing them again only hours after a silent goodbye. I will never forget the look on their face when they saw me, with no words being necessary to express their delight. Then I spent a week doing a homestay help-exchange in Reykjavík. Painting the outside of the house on my penultimate day, I looked behind me to my right to see the cutest little boy from across the street watching me with interest. With his blinding blue eyes and white-blond hair, he resembled my brothers as six year olds. After a moment I said simply, “Ég tala ensku,” in an attempt to explain that I wouldn’t be able to understand him if he spoke. He nodded quietly…and of course began speaking Icelandic to me anyway. I looked at him to guess what he was communicating and after assuming that he was being a normal curious child, carefully presented him with my roller, pointing at the wall with an encouraging nod. His face breaking into a grin, he stepped forward and, taking the roller in two tiny hands, rubbed it up and down a foot’s length of the wall a few times. Then he looked at me expectantly and I said”Gott!” cheerfully, before he flashed his adorable smile again. 

Having a language barrier reinforces the value of observation. Helping supervise a children’s party during my job as an au pair, I could tell through my eyes only what the dynamic of the group friendship was. There is always the annoying hyper kid who laps up all the attention by putting on the Spiderman costume and shouting wildly, dashing around and almost breaking the plant pot. This contrasts with the ever-present shy, sweet boy who quietly plays in a corner with the jigsaw, expressing a wider interest in the things around him and showing his intelligence. I desperately wanted to go give him company but it wasn’t really possible; I could only smile at him encouragingly and hope that someone else would play with him. From greater observation over hearing, I could see when the adorable little boy wearing a bow tie with a pirate hat couldn’t open his lollipop, looking around worriedly as others opened theirs with ease, before relaxing as soon as he saw my outstretched helping hand.

Whether it’s the short-and-sweet smile of gratitude from someone to another offering a service; the lingering eye contact between two strangers at first sight; or the silent sign language of the hearing and speech impaired, communicating through body language can be quite a beautiful thing. Sometimes there is too much talking in the world without anything really being said. By using universal body talk to break down foreign language barriers, one can look deeper into the meaning of communication.