Some Notes on the Experiences of Traveling
1: Language

Depending on what language or languages you can read, speak, or otherwise make yourself understood in, if you travel far enough, sooner or later you'll arrive in a strange land where they speak a different language than you. I'm talking seriously different here. Not like the summer I spent in England and people did things like call cookies "biscuits," or the last five years I've spent in the Midwest, where people insist on calling Coke "pop". I mean different. When people speak to you and it sounds like they're saying "bzzz bzzz bzzz." Or as the Romans described it, "barbarbarbarb." This linguistic disconnection can have one of two effects on your self-image, sometimes both simultaneously: a) you will feel like a worldly explorer, willing and able to venture forth into a strange world and survive by your wits; b) you will feel like a complete moron.

Despite what you might think, the two are not mutually exclusive. A few weeks ago I spent some time in Europe (soon to be called Euroland). Most of that time was spent in two countries, Poland and the Netherlands. I also spent a couple days in Germany, but I'm letting that go for the nonce. At any rate, considering how close geographically these two countries are, they're remarkably different. Poland spent many, many years as part of the Warsaw Pact, behind the Iron Curtain under Communist rule. Only in the last decade has the country begun the painful process of modernization (or as some might argue, Westernization). The Netherlands, on the other hand, is an extremely Western, extremely modern, and extremely civilized country. More so than the States in some respects.

First, the worldly explorer effect. As I said, Poland is in the process of updating itself. Most people there don't speak English, they speak Polish (duh). Polish bears very little resemblance to English. English belongs to the Germanic family of languages, while Polish is a Slavic tongue. Now then, Poland currently does not get a lot of tourist trade, at least from the United States. They're working on it, mind you. Things are pretty cheap there, and the exchange rate is killer (four zlotys to the dollar), but I don't think Poland springs to mind as a destination to Americans uttering the phrase "European vacation". I always thought of Poland as being filled with dour looking women wrapped in scarves, standing in line for bread and toliet paper. Incidentally, and happily I might add, this is not the case, if ever it was.

The point is, not a lot of people there speak English. University people do, and English is also taught for a couple years in the schools, but I think most people retain about as much of that as you did from your high school French class. You know a few phrases, such as "Hello," "Goodbye," and "My uncle has a pen." That sort of thing. So when you go into a store or a restaurant, you spend a great deal of time trying to puzzle things out. Does the word look like an English word? If so, maybe it has a related meaning. Is there a picture right beside the word or phrase? If so, how is it refering to the picture? How bright is the person you're trying to communicate with? Do they understand your hand gestures, and vice versa?

(Incidentally, I'd like to say that, as difficult as it is trying to communicate with a human who doesn't speak your language, it's much easier than it would be trying to communicate with a non-human intelligence, with a completely different physical strucuture. You have nothing in common. How do you translate tentacles waving violently? As a threat, a shrug, or a proposition of marriage? Talk about a brain-teaser.)

If you do that sort of thing often enough, you start to feel pretty clever: "Hey, I ordered dinner, got a reasonable meal that I enjoyed, and paid my bill! All without being poisoned, sickened, or arrested!" Despite the confidence this can build, after a few days you get pretty darn tired of having every meal or transaction being an adventure. Still, you feel pretty good about yourself.

And now, the complete moron effect. In the Netherlands, it's a completely different story. They have a long association with the English speaking West. English is taught in the schools, for several years. Most people can speak English, good quality English. It's practically a second language. When you go into a shop to buy something, the clerk may start speaking Dutch to you, but as soon as you open your mouth and reveal that you're an American, they flip over to English without missing a beat. It's like hitting the Spanish button on your TV, boom, suddenly there it is.

Now, being able to make yourself understood has many advantages, particularly if you're in an unusual situation: "Hi, I've just been robbed and now I think I'm having a heart attack. Would you be so kind as to call an ambulance and the police?" But after a while, it can make you feel kind of stupid. After all, you're in the Netherlands. You don't speak a word of Dutch. But they speak English. Most of them speak English. So why don't you speak Dutch? They learned English, didn't they? So what's wrong with you? And what about that half-assed educational system that raised you? Why didn't they teach you Dutch?

It's the sort of thing that could actually make a stupid person decide that all foreigners can speak English, they just don't want to. They'd rather make you feel stupid and make disparaging remarks to your face, and all you can do is smile and nod.

The Netherlands actually has the requirement that all people wishing to immigrate there have sixty days to learn Dutch, or out they go. This, I assume, is to cut down on cultural outsiders who wish nothing more than to enjoy the fruits of Dutch culture (such as legalized drugs and prostitution) without giving anything back to the country and system. Intensive courses are offered, sixty day language fests designed to teach you enough Dutch to pass the citizenship test. I tell you, after I'd been there a few days, I wanted very badly to learn speak Dutch. Mind you, I have no plans to move there (although I'd like to go back for a visit). But what good would this do me? There are lots of other countries I want to visit, each speaking their own language. I can't learn them all. Oh, how I long for a universal translator.

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