Connection vs. mere communication, and the relief of common language during travel

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.”

Life as language mnemonic

I know few enough words in Turkish that I can remember when and where I learned many of them over the last 2 months. Some words float up unbidden and I cannot recall why I know them. But other words take on associations for me, like songs or scents, with certain scenes in my Turkish life. They are more useful than any mnemonic I’ve come up with so far.

Yumurta, the word for “egg”, is an appropriate start. It is the first word I used in my first Turkish errand. Unfortunately,  I learned torba and çorba around the same time. A one-letter difference leaves little margin of error; I hoped to tell the shopkeeper that I had my own bag (torba) for groceries – instead, I told him soup (çorba) was not necessary.

Dikkat – careful! – I learned attempting to cross the streets in Kars. I have since figured out that streetlights are observed at only 3 of the town’s intersections. The rest are decorative.

Yağmur, rain, I first heard standing at the top of the Kars castle, watching the sky broil and darken with a forceful May thunderstorm. The word, all vowel sounds, seemed too gentle for the rushing dark clouds heading directly for us.

Çamur is mud – an appropriate rhyme with rain. Both the word and the substance were hard to miss, walking through a village in sneakers and hoping to stay on my feet, nor trapping my shoes in the stuff. The village kids were delighted that I had increased my vocabulary by one with their help.

I learn the word for “cheese” not in a grocery store but through an introduction to our neighbors’ yellow cat, Peynir. I am relieved that I didn’t test my comprehension by calling “here, cheese, cheese!” to any local strays. To add to my animal confusion, I live with a cat named Baykuş = “owl”.

Dut is mulberry, my favorite childhood fruit. On a trip to Diyarbakir, I went for a walk with Couchsurfing friend, who took me below the city walls and along the Tigris River. We ate our fill from the trees we passed, hands stained violent purple-red. I’ve never been more motivated to keep learning.

Starting over, in Turkish

I have studied Turkish for 2 months and lived here for 1. It’s an ongoing challenge:

A month into living in Kars, listening to the flow of Turkish speech still feels like drowning in a river, grabbing on to the driftwood of the few words I recognize. This is simultaneously exhilarating and deeply frustrating. Out of the stream of this incomprehensible language, I manage to catch familiar words, which feels like a minor miracle. But then I am stuck holding the orphan words with no context. The stream keeps flowing by and drowns me once again. Continue reading…