Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sans Langue

[I had a request for a post on language, and since birthdays are involved, I thought I'd better deliver.]

In October of 1986 I'd been living and traveling in Europe for over a year.  I was in the final leg of my journey, having said farewell to Munich and hitchhiked my way along the foot of the German Alps to the Rhein.  I was wandering these last weeks in no great hurry, with no urgency to get home, but also without any burning curiosity about the places I was moving through.  The day before I had fallen in love with a German girl who picked me up in her truck - moving her things to university. I was fairly convinced that I could get her to fall in love with me as well.  But some part of me understood I was just drifting unmoored, and I should go on.  (I was also in love with a girl in Rhode Island, though she was months and many miles distant, and not waiting for me.)

At the Rhein the Frenchmen stamped a new visa into my passport - there'd been bombings in Paris during the summer and these visas were a new thing.  I shouldered my backpack and walked across the bridge, departing a land where people spoke a language that I understood and entering one where I spoke a few dozen words.  But one of those words was the word for train station, so if I could make my way to the city of Nancy, I'd be able to find the gare and get a ticket to Brussels and a flight home.

I had traveled without language before this -- Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, northern Finland -- and some things are easy, like hitchhiking or buying dinner or flirting, and some things are hard, like a doctor visit, or a haircut or flirting.  I had no pressing needs in this hilly farming country and people seemed content to help an amiable, language-less American make his way.  I must have left my map in one of those cars, but it didn't particularly bother me.  I couldn't get any more lost than I was.

Perhaps I had muttered an inquiring "kemping?" to someone, because in the early evening I found myself at a farm with a little campground to the side, standing with the old couple who owned it.  I think they tried to explain to me that it was out of season and the little campground was closed, but my mute, unyielding incomprehension finally won out.  Before long I had my tent set up in their meadow and was making a little pot of potato soup on my cookstove.  The old woman came by and I held up my bowl of potato and carrot peelings toward her inquiringly.  She had seemed a little oppressed by my languagelessness, but she brightened up and with a cheerful merci, took my offering of peelings to the sheds to feed the pigs.  I was secretly glad that I hadn't been able to ask where the garbage cans were.

As I discovered when I went to wash up for the night, the campground's bathroom was filled with a huge pile of ear corn.  It was simple enough to climb over but the sinks were at the far end and the frugal farmers had set the lights on a 3 minute timer - so precisely every 180 seconds I'd have to scramble back over the pile of corn (this time in total darkness), find the light switch, flip it and make my way back across the corn for whatever was left of my 180 seconds.  Questioning the farmers about this set-up is one of those things that would have been hard without language.  They'd apparently already gone to bed, so I left them in peace.

I distinctly recall standing beside the burly old man early the next morning.  He was wearing his Sunday best and was anxious to head out for the day's errands.  I handed him the few francs or deutschmarks we'd agreed upon for the night's stay.  It was here at this moment that the impersonal exchange of cash for hospitality ought to be domesticated by an exchange of pleasantries - a remark about the weather, an inquiry about how I'd slept, a comment about the condition of the roads toward Nancy, or a belated acknowledgement of the pile of corn.  But farmers, even ones with language can be taciturn.  We stood for a long quiet couple of minutes companionably looking off into the cool, foggy morning while he finished his cigarette.  Then he turned, shook my hand and left me alone in the meadow to break camp.