Alone Together

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Happy Valentine’s Day! Hopefully we’re celebrating on a beach on Little Corn Island, off the coast of Nicaragua. I wrote this a few days ago, concerned that we’d have no internet. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t.

Alone Together

We crossed paths recently with some friends from the US; at some point during that day full of wide-ranging, deeply satisfying conversation (People to talk to who are not us! Who speak English! With whom we have things in common!), one of them turned to me and said, “So I guess you guys are pretty good at meeting local people wherever you go.”

My immediate response was instinctive and honest: “No, actually, we’re awful at it.”

As I heard the words land with a thud, I cringed a bit, but they were out there now, so we just moved on. His question stuck with me, though, and I’ve been carrying it around in my head for a month now, trying to see my way into a better answer.

I just don’t have one. No, the truth is, we’re awful at meeting local people.

It’s not the fact that we’re busy, or that we’re lazy, or that we just don’t even try, or that constantly trying to strike up conversations with strangers is both awkward and exhausting (although all of those things are true).

The bottom line is, if you don’t speak the language, it’s just about impossible. It took me several years of traveling, and not being able to eavesdrop or understand graffiti, to realize just how much we’re missing out by not being able to have a real conversation with anyone outside of our little unit of two. I’m not fluent in any language other than English, and I wish I were. 

It’s a multi-faceted disadvantage: it’s more difficult to get things done, obviously. There are the basics, like, how do you say electrical tape, or where can I get a boarding pass printed on Sunday?

Then there are the sort of next-level questions, like when should I say Que tal vs Como esta?, or why do the residents of Buenos Aires call themselves Porteños? (Luckily, Google knew the answer to that one—it’s a port city. Duh.) The real questions, though, the meaty things, like tell me about your country’s politics, or what are your dreams for your children, are simply too far beyond my abilities. Even if I could ask, I’d be terrified of unwittingly stepping into a hornet’s nest, or being unacceptably rude and not even realizing it.

The language barrier is one of the biggest disadvantages of moving around the way we do, but it’s one that we accept. We’ve been in South America for 8 months now; I’ve learned enough Spanish to be borderline functional, but that’s my limit. I took 3 weeks of lessons back in June, and obviously I’ve used it every day since then, but that’s all the time I was willing to invest. I’m never going to know enough to get myself invited to a cocktail party, or to join a book club. There are only so many hours in the day, and I spend most of mine doing other things. When we leave the Spanish-speaking part of the world in May, I will simply let go of all those words, let them fly out of my head at the border.

On the other hand, while we don’t speak much of any other language, lots of people in the tourism industry speak English: tour guides and hotel owners and Airbnb hosts. I’ve been cleaning up the contact list on my phone recently, and I realized that it’s full of people like that—industry people we’ve met. Occasionally, those interactions are incredibly meaningful, and it’s because of them that we know how much we are missing. Does chatting with a tour guide count as ‘meeting local people?’

Probably not, but it’s the best I can do.

From my writer’s notebook: A surprising amount of world-class art is held in churches and cathedrals all over Europe, and these buildings are often more vulnerable to heists than the more famous museums. One recent example (which would be funny, if it weren’t so awful): in early November of last year, thieves turned a car into a battering ram by strapping a tree trunk to the roof. They bashed in the door of a cathedral in southern France, and made off with vestments and gold ceremonial items, some of which were hundreds of years old.

Take care,

Lisa

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