Thursday, September 03, 2009


For whatever reason, I've developed an affinity for foreign languages in my lifetime. I suppose it's not only the languages but foreign cultures, as well.

It's not a coincidence that my "blog name" is Viszlát Sjáumst. Both words mean about the same thing - "see you later" - in Hungarian and Icelandic, respectively.

I studied French in junior high, high school, and one year in college. Much of it has been lost but over the years I've done okay with the basics - getting by in Montréal and Paris in quick visits. My vocabulary level is low but I can still make out basic signs and make my way through certain written materials. Making pleasantries and asking certain questions in markets, and the like, was a nice challenge.

Earlier this decade I traveled a bit in Europe with a group of friends - to Iceland, Denmark, Hungary, and Spain. A few of us spent five days in Guatemala during that time, as well. For each visit, aside from Iceland, I brought a Berlitz phrase book with me in order to test my chops in the local tongue.

It wasn't anything groundbreaking but I was able to manage enough to get by in most cases. Typically, I was the 'go-to' guy when it came to deciphering what was going on and trying my best to interpret what was needed to get through the situation.

Ordering food and - more likely - beer, asking about train schedules, directions... typical travel chat.

Denmark (and Sweden) were pretty simple, since most people in both countries are well versed in English, anyway. Although, I put myself in a corner when I asked the woman at the front desk of our hotel in Copenhagen, in Danish, if she could recommend a good seafood restaurant. Without pause, she began rattling off names and directions in Danish - after which, I gave up the game. I was outmatched. We necessarily resorted to English but I think she was impressed with my effort, nonetheless.

Spain and Guatemala were great because one of my mates had been studying Spanish, so we managed pretty well as a group with a two-pronged attack. My proudest moment, though, probably came while we were in Budapest, Hungary.

There were only three of us on that trip. We all knew the basics - Hello, thank you, please, etc. But my shining moment came after an afternoon visit to Gellért Hill.

After making our way down the hill we found ourselves in the back alley of the main strip. There was a small pub/diner/market that ran from the back of the block to the front, where the main street was. We entered through the back entrance.

Inside, there was a construction worker finishing up his lunch, another man sitting alone at a table sipping a beer, the matronly proprietor who was manually balancing the books in a thick ledger - the way it had probably been done for decades, if not centuries - and us three American tourists.

Needless to say, this wasn't one of the places highlighted in the Lonely Planet guides. We knew it and, based on the cold reception given to us by the boss-woman, she knew it, as well.

Undeterred (and no doubt thirsty), we sat down at the small back counter and pointed to one of the beer taps indicating that we'd each like a glass. The woman reluctantly (it seemed) obliged by filling three glasses from the tap and immediately went back to the table where she'd been sitting to finish her accounting for the day.

As we enjoyed our first glasses of beer and discussed our recent visit, I began leafing through my Berlitz Hungarian Phrase Book & Dictionary.

Deciding we were comfortable and not quite ready to move on to our next destination, we waited for her to catch our glances and she returned back behind the counter. Meanwhile, I had had a few minutes to digest the information in the book, piece together a few words, and summon up the courage to order another round - in Hungarian.

"Három korsó magyar sört, kérek," I said a bit sheepishly. "Three pints Hungarian beer, please." Wouldn't you know it - a smile came across the woman's face as she happily filled three glasses with cold, Hungarian beer.

It's a phrase I've committed to memory and, for some reason, I'll occasionally say out loud. The better to practice some Hungarian diction, perhaps. Beats me.

Unfortunately, it was close to closing time (about 4:00 p.m.) and we were only able to stay for one more before she closed up for the afternoon. I'd like to think the construction worker finishing his lunch was impressed too but that may just be revisionist history.

It was a nice moment of connection. The slightest effort on our part to communicate in her native language, instead of pantomiming like a monkey and bellowing in English, had made a huge impression. That connection is just one of the things I love about traveling to non-English speaking locales.

That trip was in 2001. There was one last annual trip, to Spain, in 2002. (1999-2002, R.I.P.) After that it just became more difficult to put together, mostly due to the 2003 U.S. incursion into Iraq and the uncertainties that brought with it.

The passion didn't end there for me, though. In subsequent years, one of the items on my Christmas 'Wish List' was a Teach Yourself Icelandic book and audio cd. In 2004, I signed up for an adult education Spanish course at a (somewhat) local high school. Last year, I enrolled in another Spanish course with a couple of co-workers to hone my Español.

Having taken French for so many years, Spanish was fairly easy to get a hold on. I mean that relatively. A lot of the grammar and verb stuff is similar (as in Italian, too). Vocabulary and verb tenses are always a challenge but the basics (present tense, please!) have been less so. Sometimes I'll practice by 'talking' to my cat in Spanish. True.

"No más de agua aquí, gatito!"

Which leads me to the impetus of this post. My Spanish has paid off in small but gratifying ways. There's the old (I think he's 72 now?) man from the Dominican Republic who works for the cleaning service at my office. I'm usually there an hour or so after 'closing time' so I'm there when he comes around. We've had small conversations and I definitely notice when he's not there (he takes a month-long vacation back to the D.R. once a year - during the winter, of course).

More recently, I was in the local liquor store discussing the new Guinness 250th Anniversary Stout with the cashier. A co-worker (off-duty, I presumed) was also there when a man of Latino descent came in. He went to the back of the store and searched the coolers through the glass doors for his purchase. As I was talking with the cashier about the limited Anniversary Stout, I heard the man speaking Spanish to the off-duty worker.

"Treinta, Treinta!" he kept repeating. I peeked around the corner and I could see him holding up his hands, palms out, fingers splayed in what must be the universal sign for the number 10. "Treinta! Bud Light, diez mas," he was saying. The co-worker just stood there, somewhat indifferently, somewhat confusedly.

That's when I said, "He's looking for a Bud Light 30-pack. There are only 20-packs there."

The kid looked a bit put-out but he pointed to the door leading inside the cooler and said, "It's in there." The customer went in, grabbed his 30-pack of Bud Light, and paid for it. By that time, I was already outside getting into my car.

As the man came out, he spotted me and gave me a smile and a wave. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I rolled down my window and shouted, "Que tenga buena noche!" He turned, waved, and shouted something back in Spanish.

I'm not quite sure what he said but I think it may only have been because I couldn't hear him - not that I couldn't understand him.

At least that's what I hope it was.