One of the challenges of traveling abroad is the language barrier. I speak some Spanish, although a lot of it is phrases I remember from school. Many of those phrases, I have discovered, have little application in real-life circumstances: “¿Donde está su cuaderno?” (“Where is your notebook?”) hasn’t come up all that often in my travels. Other than Spanish, I have a little grab-bag of French, Italian and German words. When we go to countries where those languages aren’t spoken, I make a point of learning a few words and phrases in, say, Turkish or Greek or Czech — whatever is appropriate for the country we’re visiting. And in those countries, I always arm myself beforehand with the five words that are absolutely essential to communication anywhere in the world: “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank you” and “beer”.
Less than a decade after the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe had ended, I made a journey by train from Prague, in the Czech Republic, to Vienna, Austria. The following is an entry in my travel journal for July 2, 1998. It illustrates some of the difficulties of trying to speak in something other than one’s native tongue…
The main train station in Prague still has signage in Russian, and looks like what we always thought Iron Curtain countries had to endure in terms of amenities… or lack thereof. It’s gloomy. The train did pull away from platform 2 promptly at 9:21.
The villages and Czech countryside are picturesque, but the larger towns tend to reflect the “progress” inflicted by the previous regime: boxy concrete buildings and rusty train stations. My “first-class” cabin shares space with a middle-aged couple who speak Spanish; across the aisle are two Americans, presumably mother and daughter. I’m pretty sure they are stowing away in this car. When the conductor came to check tickets, they pretended to be asleep. He eventually got them to wake up, and they had to pay a supplement.
The rolling farmland occasionally gave way to hillsides covered with pine and birch, and there was a river that ran alongside the track for several miles. I managed to avoid speaking to anyone for a couple of hours. Then I gave myself away to the Spanish speakers (who proved to be from Chile) when I tried to point out a deer (“¡ciervo!”) in the woods to the señora. After that, they referred questions to me in Spanish — things about where we were, would the authorities stamp our passports, etc. It was strange — I was having to summon up my Spanish after several days of trying to communicate with a handful of Czech words.
The process for crossing the frontier by rail was stressful. At the border town of Breclav, two Czech policemen boarded the train to inspect passports; they were followed by a platoon of armed Austrian border guards. I spoke Czech to the Czechs, German to the Austrians, all the while explaining the situation in Spanish to the anxious couple from Chile. After that experience I treated myself to a croissant (French word) and a bottle of Pilsner Urquell pivo (the Czech word for beer).
Aboard the Smetana (the name of my train), the Chileans tried to keep a conversation going all the way to Vienna, which, mercifully, wasn’t too much farther. The train pulled into Sudbahnhof station about 2:45 p.m. I waved farewell to the Chileans — I probably said “vaya con queso” — and stumbled off the train with a blinding headache from my multilingual efforts…