Lost in Translation
Life has a funny way of putting us in uncomfortable situations. Sometimes out of our control, other times at our own free will. My lifelong philosophy has been to never have a "what if" when it comes to these situations so a few years ago I decided to embark on a different kind of international journey: I accepted a position as a lead soloist for AIDA Cruises- a cruise line based out of Germany. The crew is made of several nationalities, the majority communicating in German... and I don't speak German.
I spent two months living alone in Hamburg, Germany before sailing for 5 months around the Western Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Sounds like a great adventure, but language barriers can be rather daunting. Here's what I learned about communicating with people outside of America...
If You're Unsure, Ask
As Americans we are extremely prideful and a tad egotistical (I'll admit it), and sometimes we refuse help from other people. When you visit another country this is the absolute WORST thing you can do. You may think you look like an idiot half the time (and you probably do), but the dearest stories I ever tell are those that involve the people I met when asking for directions, asking what a foreign word meant, or even chatting up that guy in an Irish pub in Galway during my first pub crawl and solo adventure to the UK... Allow yourself to be a student of a new culture. Act like you're back in preschool: explore, create, walk the unbeaten path (let your mom know where you are going first), and challenge yourself. The stories you'll be able to tell and the ice cream you'll be able to eat... Ask a local. They know their land better than any guide book you read.
Do Some Research Ahead of Time and Always Be Polite
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most people in the world speak English which is amazingly lucky for us Yanks, but you cannot just assume that everyone you come into contact with speaks it as fluently as you do. You know what happens when you ass-ume...
At the very least learn how to say "hello", "goodbye", "yes", "no", "please" and "thank you" in the language of the land you will be visiting. Take it a step further and learn how to say "Hello, do you speak English?". I highly suggest downloading an app like Duolingo. I love this app because each lesson only takes like 10 minutes to complete. You not only write and read, but you also have to verbally respond. You can even "text a friend" in the app. With 81 language courses over 37 languages, including High Valyrian(!), you can prepare for any trip... or for when you meet the Mother of Dragons. You will earn serious brownie points just for trying. Once again, you may sounds like you are speaking gibberish to them, but you made an attempt and learned something new.
We all know how jarring it can be for someone who doesn't speak English to start unloading things on us in a foreign language, so take the time to do a little bit of research to spare someone a little stress and receiving a wide-eyed look of panic and misunderstanding.
Enjoy the Experience
Yes, as I've stated above: be prepared, do your research, let loose, and download CityMaps2Go so you can explore a city without having to connect to the wifi which will take you to the most amazing ice cream shop in the world called Fenochicco located in Nice, France. When you are exploring a new country really explore it. Talk to the natives as best you can. Find out where the locals go to hang out, eat, drink and be merry.
Strike up a conversation with someone on your tour group. Make connections, make friends... and then become Facebook friends with them, stay in contact, and ask to stay on their couch the next time you visit their city. International friends can never refuse you. It's like an unspoken law.