A girlfriend and I met many entertaining characters on our late summer getaway to Croatia. From the eccentric taxi driver ‘Bruno’ to the slimy sorts that had tried rather cringe-worthily to flirt with us. But it was ‘the man on the bus’ whose name we never knew, that had left a lasting impression. We met him on our second day as we found ourselves venturing from the resort at Verudela into the ancient Pula.
The small and unsteady looking old man joined the bus halfway through our journey and, although clearly a local, sported a sweat-stained white Chinese embroidered baseball cap and shirt. He was leaning on one walking stick and on one medical crutch, the latter having an umbrella fastened along it with string. We both found his character an interesting one, but Laura put it perfectly by saying that it looked as if his entire world was held within his shirt pocket. It strained with black and white photographs, pens, money and other various important looking documents.
We were intrigued and he, perhaps spurred on by the two young girls examining him intently, decided to strike up a conversation. “Where you from?” I loved how he could instantly tell that we were foreigners. We explained that we were from England to which he responded by suggesting that Tony Blair was president. He blinked wide-eyed in surprise as we laughed and corrected him that David Cameron was now prime minister and not president, at which he sucked his gums.
He continued to enquire as to which area of England we had travelled from. We tried to explain but as his brow became heavier with frowning he asked whether we spoke any Spanish or German. Figuring it a universal gesture I wavered a level hand and said “kleine Deutsch,” meaning a little German, but immediately regretted it. As if someone had poked a button on his brain, he switched languages and was off; rambling about one thing and another. I kept up for as long as my GCSE C-grade would permit, but Laura, having studied French, looked decidedly more worried. I started translating for her, and that’s when we all became muddled.
Both of us seemed just as frustrated as the other, and having exchanged shrugs fell silent. The awkwardness was only relieved when our stop arrived and we made a speedy exit. Whilst walking down the street I wondered whether it is still considered polite to at the very least, attempt to speak the local tongue when visiting another country. It struck me that most people in the places I had visited, and not just Europe, could speak competent levels of English. Our Croatian ‘man on the bus’ for example was multi-lingual and I felt so embarrassed that I didn’t even possess a decent level of German, especially when he could offer three different languages; four including his own!
In my own mind I justified the absolute uselessness I suffered when studying foreign languages by thinking that English is far easier to learn. Yet I couldn’t deny the overriding feeling that I, like most, but not all, Brits was just plain lazy. I have witnessed on countless holidays how poor we are at attempting the different language, especially in resorts. There is this ongoing joke that for Americans nothing exists outside of the USA because they are their own world as they know it. Yet we are also dangerously blasé in expecting most people abroad to speak English. On talking to a friend about the experience, he suggested that this attitude stems back to our once vast empire, which our subconscious interpretation of sometimes causes a seemingly stubborn and often rude mindset. For me travelling is about more than lounging by the pool or on a beach with a book whilst eating and drinking too much; it’s about exploring and embracing the new and different cultures, including the languages.
In order to do this successfully, next time I’m abroad I decided that my next New Year’s resolution should be to learn another language, but just like getting back into shape, I worry it might fall by the wayside.