Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Trying hard not to be the ugly American

Some thoughts from the less-hair-covered head of Brian:

As someone who is a rookie to travel in non-English speaking countries (not counting the Canucks of course), it has been very interesting for me as I try to adjust to different cultural behaviors and do my best to fit in during the first month of our trip. It has been a very up and down experience. Certainly in areas where we've been longer (or the language is easier to pick up such as French in Belgium) it has been easier while places where the language is more difficult (Estonia for instance) it's been a frustrating experience of trying to play along while not just blurting everything out in loud English like most US travelers.

I've been hit and miss on using the local language; for places where we're only there 2-3 days it tough to pick enough up to be functional before you head out the door. I have a feeling that once we hit countries for a longer time there will be more motivation to learn enough to at least order a sandwich for lunch or ask how much a coke is. Even in a 2-3 day period though it's amazing how many written words you can pick up when you're just walking the towns and you know what certain words are supposed to mean (ex. streets, hours listed on business, sales, etc.). The motivation factor is also directly tied into the difficult of the language. The Scandanvian/Nordic languages are a lot more difficult as it seems like my speech is best suited for the loose nasally words much more available in French and Spain.

The other big issue has been the English factor. Since almost everyone in the countries we have visited are at least bilingual (with English as their 2nd language) it has been hard at times to get motivated to learn the native words (esp. when they want to show off their English for you). It certainly makes it nicer as someone visiting but it also makes me uncomfortable. As Americans we expect people to speak our language when they visit; why can't we make the effort to do the same in their country?

The language issue hasn't been all doom and gloom though. There are the rare moments when I've been able to put together a sentence or two to order something, ask for something, etc. that 1) shocks whoever I'm talking to and 2) seems to produce an actual appreciation for the effort. Of course it can sometimes get myself in trouble as well. I was buying some yogurt at the Stockholm train station. I got almost the entire way through the conversation and was about to get the change before the clerk asked me a question. And asked me again. As a result, I had to stand there with a blank stare and finally admit my Swedish wasn't so good. She then breaks out a smile and says in English: "I was only asking you if you wanted spoons for your yogurt". An ashamed look and a Swedish thanks later and I was off knowing that I'd tried but again didn't quite make the grade.

Overall it has been difficult but I'd give myself a B in my efforts. I certainly haven't been assimilating seamlessly in each country but I also haven't been one of those people wondering "why they don't do it our way", asking the Brits why they just don't expand their highways to deal with their congestion problems or wondering where the local McDonald's is in a slow extremely loud voice.

By the way, you will never miss the McD's. Those suckers are in prominent locations in each city (though the McCafes with the wicker chairs and stylish Swedish-style tables in Stockholm gave me a double take as it's a direct conflict: fast food jammed into the relaxed cafe culture).

Just my two cents away from the day to day adventures.


Anonymous said...

Just wait until you are in the Asian countries... where you can't say anything or read anything! That's when you really learn what a language barrier is.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I agree about the ugly American and trying to learn a foreign language. I am working on my Italian and the guys at work are trying to help so hopefully I will be able to ask for the bathroom and get a Beer.

Anonymous said...

it's definitely tough when you are only in a place for a day or two (or 6 hours)... some moderate good news (if you were still there) is that the Nordic languages are all somewhat similar.

before we went to france the first time I tried to crash course enough to "par-lay voo on-glay" and such... oddly enough my spanish came in real handy on that trip!

anyway, chelle is right, wait until you get to the asian countries. at least in (western) europe it's the same basic alphabet, and if you know any of the other romance languages you can pick up enough to get by quickly. some good news is that places like Thailand are pretty decent with english signs... but I'm guessing Myanmar and Laos probably aren't.

Anonymous said...

To answer Smithy's question... no more Norway after Balestrand. We're in Estonia currently and are a little behind in posting. Should have Stockholm and Tallin up soon. Thanks for all the comments and notes. Make sure and check out the other posts we put up a few days ago...