I’ve been miming and two-word-sentence-ing my way through Turkey for the past three months, but never realized just how draining it was until I traveled through Georgia, and was suddenly, miraculously, able to talk to almost anyone. Suddenly, speaking Russian felt as extraordinary as having a Babelfish in my ear.
Our travels are made up of these small interactions with people that add up to the full picture of a place as much as, if not more than, the sights we see or museums we visit. It can be as simple as asking directions or joking about the weather, or asking about the culinary secrets of a babushka selling homemade cheese and mchadi at the market, or getting into philosophical debates with your homestay host about Georgian politics. I had heard some warnings about speaking Russian in Georgia, since the relationship between the two countries is tense, but I couldn’t learn more than “gamarjoba” and “madloba” on short notice, nor memorize the cursive Georgian script. As it turned out, almost everyone I spoke to was simply happy to talk, no matter what the language.
Among other interactions, a portly grey-haired woman sold me the most enormous green figs and the most delicious churchkhela I’d ever tasted. In conversation, she told me about her garden, her technique for making the grape syrup for the churchkhela, her pride in these sweets that she gouged me for, but that were worth it. Another time, asking for directions, an old man launched into a tirade about gas prices these days, and how could anyone claim that life was bad under Stalin, when you look at the inflation rates? Being able to stand up for myself with a sketchy marshrutka driver. Hapless attempts by a potbellied 50-ish Georgian man to hit on me. Hitchhiking with students and soldiers as we listened to Georgian folk, Russian rap and Lana del Rey. All of these portraits of Georgians would be lost to me without Russian.
I speak 3 languages; of these, English opens the most doors and smoothes over basic interactions almost everywhere I’ve traveled. I could never advocate traveling only in countries whose languages you speak fluently – you would never leave the house. Sometimes the language barrier is a challenge worth facing, where every real connection feels like a minor blessing, where you gain a newfound appreciation for the simplest tasks you accomplish. Other times, you cannot shake the feeling that you’re just skating on top of the iceberg, and missing some fundamental understanding. Coming back to Turkey from Georgia, I was plunged back into muteness. Aside from destinations and food orders, I can’t carry on a conversation, don’t understand jokes, often cannot distinguish between helpfulness and flirtation. And my travels in Turkey are tinged by that feeling of being on my guard, afraid of being lost, or being misunderstood. There are many places I want to go, still, whose languages I do not speak and am unlikely to ever learn. But, as I plan future solo trips, I feel I will lean heavily in favor of places where I can continue the conversation past the “what” questions and into “why.”