Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Found in Translation

As I embark on the second major abroad adventure in my life, I have started to reflect about the first time I left the U.S. One summer during college, I had the great opportunity to go to Portugal with a college friend and her mom and sister. When she asked me if I wanted to go I immediately said "yes," and then looked up where Portugal was. (World Geography was not at the top of academic subjects I had mastered. Don't judge. I have other skills---I can still name the prepositions in alphabetical order, so put that IN your pipe and smoke it).

So I was going to Europe.....

I was meeting them there and was scheduled to arrive at the Lisbon airport two hours earlier than them. I did not know it yet but my luck with air travel sucks and the gods of ETAs laughed in my face when I started my journey. It ended up taking me over 24 hours to get there, and my friend and her family beat me by six hours.

I was nervous and excited and had no idea what to expect. I knew it was going to be different, but being completely surrounded by a foreign language that I was not even proficient in was something I had to experience to understand.  Flying Air Portugal there gave me my first taste of a language barrier. As I boarded the plane in Newark, I caught snippits of Portuguese, a language full of hard vowels, guttural noises, and ʃ where I would usually put 's'. (That's the 'sh' sound for everyone who is uninformed... you still judging that I didn't know where Portugal was?) In the airport, I still got the gist of what was going on around me,  because most of the passengers were speaking English. The moment that plane took off, though, it was like stepping into a drunk Portuguese family reunion. Not that anyone was drunk. Or related. Or maybe they all were? Who knows. I just know the plane got rowdy and happy all in another language. I could tell that a lot of my fellow passengers were returning home or had some personal ties to Portugal and were excited to be on their way. It almost felt like the plane scene from Moonstruck (except going to Portugal and not Italy) and there most likely was someone from the old country who put a curse on that plane.

On this plane ride, I learned my first rule of international travel:

1) When you don't understand, answer "I don't understand," especially when you know the flight attendants on the international flight speak English. Don't sit there like a wild eyed mouth breather and look around for help from others. The question was "Chá o café?" (tea or coffee). I didn't want either.... how do you say water?? I thought I looked American enough for them to assume I didn't speak Portuguese.

Which brings me to my second rule.

2) There are no assumptions in international travel. People of all ethnicities, skin color, backgrounds, races, nationalities, etc. travel and speak all sorts of languages. And, a lot of countries are much more hospitable to tourists than the U.S. In fact, it's not uncommon for people to speak multiple languages (including English) and to be willing to work with you on what you know. They don't just pull the ole' American trick and speak slower and louder. Even so, you should learn a few key phrases to help you get around....

Onto the third rule.

3)The key phrases I learned in Portuguese:
  •  "Obrigada."     
    • Thank you (feminine)
  • "Desculpe."      
    • I'm sorry. (Especially useful when you bump into the old woman (probably the one that cursed your plane) multiple times on the bus).
  • "Quero dos bolas de chocolate." 
    • I want two scoops of chocolate.
Food is kind of a big deal to me. I documented all of my meals and immediately made myself familiar with the country's desserts and potato chip selections. There are some weird flavor Dorito's out there, yall.

I was picking up the nuances of traveling abroad and my brain quickly adjusted to not understanding everything around me. Most meals served as an adventure in ordering and zoning out with the TV on lost it's appeal because I was already zoning out since I didn't understand it. The chatter around me became white noise until the fourth or fifth day there when my ears pricked up. I heard English. American English. And not just that--- the accent--- it was familiar. It was Southern.

We were exploring a castle in Lisbon that was over 1,000 years old when the voice slammed into my ears. "Y'all come look at this!" I spun around. I had to find the owner. "Check this out, y'all." They had their backs to me. They were checking out the sandwich stand at the entrance to the castle. (Naturally--- that's the first thing everyone would investigate when visiting a 1,000 year old landmark). Nonetheless, I was drawn to the accent. I understood what they were saying. I wanted to say 'hello,' see where they were from. "Awwwww mannnnn, I'm tired of these weird sandwiches. Who makes a sandwich with just some dumb cheese and tomatoes!?" "Yeah, man, you can't make us a cheeseburger or something!?" I froze. "Why can't they just give us some turkey or something? Who eats this stuff anyway?"

At that point, the Americans turned to continue on their tour of the castle and I saw the shirt one of them was proudly sporting.

Are you kidding me!? I'm on the other side of the world. I'm dealing with a language barrier for the first time. I'm feeling homesick. And my loneliness is answered with a BAMA fan!? Not only that, but a BAMA fan that wants a CHEESEBURGER at a CASTLE in LISBON. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take loneliness any day of the week.

I cringed and hurried away. I didn't want them to hear me speak and then want to be my friend. I had enough friends. I didn't want to bond with them over anything. Which brings me back to rule number two.

2*) There are no assumptions in international travel unless the assumption is about the person yelling about cheeseburgers and wearing a huge sports team logo and has no concern for the culture around them or level of their voice. Then they're American. Through and through.

But then again, who am I to judge?

No comments:

Post a Comment