Going where noone speaks my language

The advantage of being an American is that we can travel so widely and assume that someone will speak English. It’s also THE biggest thing that makes me feel tied to the Grid.

So – no surprise – some of my favorite and most memorable experiences of travel have happened when I find myself in a place where no one understands me.

Like the morning I tried to explain to the chief prosecutor why I had traveled to Mexico City to visit a friend-of-a-friend serving a sentence in a Mexican jail. (My mediocre Spanish was not really the issue…)

Or the rainy Sunday morning I was scheduled to meet someone in Mikulov, Czech Republic. The people at the train station (the ones who even looked at me) just shrugged. I caught the wrong bus. (Not a big deal – I got off in the next town and sat with a delicious cappuccino while the waiter called a cab.)

Or the little grocery store in Iceland where even the pictures on the labels didn’t help.

I can also tell of times when lack of language wasn’t a barrier. (Music, food and alcohol seem to help.)

And that’s the point: what do we do when the lines of communication are down? How do we cope when language doesn’t bring connection? How do we say what we mean when speech carries no meaning?


I don’t know if you’re trying to start a deeper conversation about human connection, but I lived in Japan for 8 months and never really got a hold of the language. I had the same trouble as you with grocery store labels - probably even worse, as at least the Icelanders use the Latin alphabet!

During this time, my phone was my best friend. I would try to carry conversations on with Japanese acquiantances, usually in a mixture of my Duolingo-grade Japanese and their high school-grade English. When that failed, we would speak into the Google translate app. It was slow, but it was worth the wait to both of us (as a foreigner in a extremely homogenous region of Japan, I was sometimes somewhat of an object of intrigue).

There are other tricks to speed things along - there’s a little-known feature of Google Translate that allows you to use your camera to read foreign-language text. Planning things out ahead of time can help if you don’t know how to ask for directions. A few simple phrases like “Do you speak English” and “Where is…” can take you a long way. And at the end of the day, with just takes a little patience, even a simple conversation can be extremely rewarding, if if some of the specifics are lost in translation.


In my experience the language barrier seems more stressful beforehand than it actually is when you get to another country. You’ll find a way to communicate – pointing to maps, showing photos on a smartphone, hand gestures, whatever!


Many years ago before the internet I went to the Greek island Naxos, which was relatively unknown at that time. Being 25 years old my goal was to ‘live off the land’ like Robinson Crusoe. To make a long story short, I met a Greek goat farmer and his wife and they invited me to stay at their ‘house’, which was basically a concrete square with a kitchen and two rooms.

I didn’t have a translation book and don’t speak Greek, and they did not speak English. I stayed for a month and had the most interesting and personable time traveling ever. It’s surprising how well you can find alternative ways to communicate- we drew pictures and created our own ‘language’ after a while. When I left I was able to communicate to them that I will never forget them (which caused a very emotional response from them).

The degree for which we communicated was extensive. For example, I knew that they were in short supply of quality bed sheets. When I returned home I bought some bed sheets and blankets and a jacket for the old man to wear when he was rounding up the goats in the evening. I went to a Greek Orthodox Church and they helped me transcribe a letter to them- the first traditional communication we shared. I sent it to them and they replied back, in Greek (which caused me to go a 2nd time to the church for translation).

As I mentioned, it was a loving experience, and a ‘boundary-breaking’ one. We can accomplish a lot more than what our mind tells us we can, and when it comes to communicating with others, the rewards can be great.


My husband and I moved to Italy in 2015 for a year+ long job. As I was the one who had done some studying in Italian in the few months before the move, I had to handle a lot of the day-t0-day things that came up. Face to face, it wasn’t so bad, but over the phone was such a challenge! I remember Vodafone calling for something and I told them my last name (Rodgers) and suddenly getting back what seemed to be nonsense from them … Roma, Otranto, Genova… ?
Then I realized this was their NATO phonetic alphabet, Italian cities! So my last name was Roma, Otranto, Domodossola, Genova, Empoli, Roma, Savona.


I lived in China for a semester when I was teaching ESL in a college. Not only was the language very different, the Chinese characters were hard to memorise. I learnt enough to be able to bargain with vendors since I love to cook. Also, they jack up the price over a thousand times if they discern that you’re not local so bargaining is a must - this happened to me when I was buying clothes and knickknacks. I also made sure I memorised the bus route character for my school and the characters in the sign for the women’s restroom.

Not knowing the language actually brings a meaningful connection of its own. I cherish my memories of living there so I always get concerned when something bad happens in China, like the Hong Kong protests crackdown and the coronavirus.


I taught ESL for decades and never bought on to the idea that any bilingual abilities made me a better teacher. Since communication involves any combination of speaking , listening, reading, and writing, I always found the right mix of these four elements to convey meaning. Embrace the challenge.

Commenting to follow later.

Somehow my niece has been able to earn her master’s degree in Spain - in Spanish, of course. She also taught English when she lived there. Now she has moved to Paris and is working on her doctorate - in French! Her degrees are in an arcane area of science, so I am in awe of her abilities. She had to learn both languages from scratch. I’ll have to ask her how she got by until she learned the languages.

I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years, working in Kowloon but staying with a Chinese family in a small rural village. My Cantonese was very limited and despite it being HK, in this area English was not widely spoken. There was a small restaurant at the road leading to the village and at night I’d often stop there for dinner. None of cooks I dealt with spoken English so I’d do a lot of pointing.
One local low-level Triad gangster had set up his court at the restaurant and he and his gang were there every night drinking beer and bothering people. One time I had just ordered my meal and he yelled at me: “YOU, COME HERE.” His minions were all giving me the evil eye and I was trying to figure out what I had done to piss him off. I look over at the cooks and owner. They were all looking the other way; there was no way they wanted to get involved. I had a feeling that things were going to turn ugly.
“YOU, every night you come here and YOU order chicken. WHY? I am sick of YOU ordering chicken. Why not beef?”
I replied: “I only know Cantonese word for chicken, I don’t know beef.”
This answer made complete sense to him and he nodded his head, defusing the situation - and giving him much face as he was able to show-off in front of his gang off that not only did he know English, but when he spoke, gweilos jumped.
So until I moved out of the village, I was probably the one person whose Cantonese instructor was a hard-hitting Triad member.


Yeah. That’s exactly the kind of story I was hoping to hear!
(I’ve had several experiences that taught me we have a connection deeper than language – experiences that mirror your connection with the Greek couple.)
Thanks for sharing!
Have you ever gone back to Naxos?

Your question speaks directly to my heart. I have wanted to go back and retrace my steps for years now. I will finally get the chance to do it in the next couple of years, as I plan to retrace my steps in the hopes of finding that spot. But I know I will be disappointed as Yonnie and Maria (the wonderful family I stayed with) are long gone from this world as they were considerably older than I and this was more than 25 years ago :frowning: The villagers whom I ‘met’ (I was the only foreigner so everyone knew of me) are gone also. Maybe the only one there would be the girl they tried to have me marry :slight_smile:

And I am sure the island, even the remote area I stayed, has changed, as Naxos has now become popular and a ‘hidden gem’ on travel sites. When I went no one had heard of it, which is why I chose it. Even so, Yonnie and Maria were intent on opening up a seaside restaurant at the time and wanted me to manage it, since I could speak English to the tourists who came down that far down the coastline. I should have stayed…but didn’t. We all have regrets, eh?

Here they are after I showed Yonnie my shaving cream which got hot after you squirt it out of a can. He loved it and used it as men’s lotion, lol. And one note about them. Maria washed her clothes out of big carved rock. One day I waited until she was away and I hurriedly washed my jeans and 3 pair of undershorts and t-shirts I had with me, as she had insisted on washing them herself. But she worked hard enough- I didn’t want her to do my work. When she returned and saw my clothes hanging on the line she started yelling at me in Greek (maybe I was glad I couldn’t understand :slight_smile: She yanked the clothes down and re-did them herself. They were poor but shared everything they had with me. Somewhere along the line the term ‘having class’ came to imply having money, but in my book they had more class than almost anyone I’ve met.



What a wonderful story! You’re lucky to have pictures!
Interestingly enough, I had a similar experience:
Shortly after graduating from college, a friend of mine took me canoeing on Harriman Reservoir in southern Vermont.
We stopped for lunch at a small beach, and as we finished our lunch, an elderly woman came down the path.
Long story short, I spend the summer camped on that point at the bottom of Charlie & Viola’s farm. As young newly-weds in the 1930s, they had moved to VT from Quebec. I helped out with chores and they treated me like a grandson.
Well, I couldn’t live all winter in a tent in Vermont. So, after the hard frost I moved on. But a part of me stayed behind.
Charlie & Viola’s farm was subsumed by suburban sprawl in the late 80s.
I’ll never forget their generosity to a young man figuring out his place in the world.

1 Like

Yep, great story. The best parts of travel, imo, are always the parts not planned. I still follow that philosophy to this day. Spontaneity is the name of the game when I travel.

1 Like

I lived in Japan, too. Our welcome person played a little joke. She gave us cards to show to the Japanese when we got lost or couldn’t make ourselves known. Turns out they said something akin to “I’m a stupid American who didn’t bother to learn the language and have no clue what I’m doing. Can you please help me find _____?” They were effective and explained the chuckles.