Beyond Language

Knowing the local language is useful for a traveller, but it’s impossible to learn them all. On this trip, there are five we could have used: German, Hungarian (good luck!), Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian, and Romanian. All we had was a phrase book. By the time I has learned to say please, thank-you, and goodbye, we’d be across the next border and on to a new language.

Nonetheless, there is a lot that can be communicated with face, hands, tone of voice, and a few key words. We have a special memory of meeting a Serbian man –who must have been in his late seventies– and feeling we had understood each other well, despite the shortage of words in common. Although dealing with language difficulties while travelling independently is hard work, this kind of encounter is the payback.

As we approached the Iron Gate, we pedalled into a Serbian village which must have had a population of about 300 souls. The weather was warm, and it was time for some cool liquid refreshment. Chris likes a beer for his roadside stops, and my choice is usually Coca-Cola –for the sugar and caffeine. We kept a look-out for a terrace with tables, but all we could see was a tiny shop with the usual curtain of plastic ribbons hanging at the doorway to keep flies out. There were crates of beer outside, and two older men sat on the bench, libations in hand. When we first paused, they gestured towards the main road out of town. They weren’t trying to chase us off; they simply thought that no foreigner would have a reason to stop there.

Pivo? I inquired, making motions of opening bottle and taking a swig. Beer? Now, there’s a useful word. Soon after they understood what we were after, we were sitting beside them on the bench with our own libations. I recognized the names of countries as the gentleman chatted to me in an inquiring tone. He was asking where we were from. Ca-NA-da! he cried in astonishment, his face alight. Stress patterns are different in other languages, and it is harder for a Serbian to decipher CA-nuh-da, so I say it their way. The next ten minutes were taken up me showing him a page of images I’d brought along: a map of Canada, a Vancouver skyline, family photos, activities we do in our country. I pointed to the photo of my great niece. Dva. She is two years old. No, not my granddaughter –my brother’s grandaughter, but she lives near us. I pointed to images and maps. He chattered on to me in rapid-fire Serbian. I didn’t undertstand the words, yet I understood much. He was telling me how many children and grandchildren he had, how proud he was of them, that family was important, that people were the same everywhere, and that countries should not fight.

As we prepared to leave, I pinned one of those small Canadian flags to his lapel. He grinned from ear to ear, and chattered on. He asked Chris chivalrously whether he might kiss me. His question was polite, though it wasn’t the words that told us so. Chris and I nodded, and he kissed me on both cheeks before we rode away.

Dovidenja, Serbia. And thank you —Hvala.


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