Language Barriers and Being Monolingual in Europe

“So what languages do you speak?” was one thing that a lot of people asked me when I was preparing for my trip. There was also a pretty unanimous expression of shock on the faces of everyone who asked when I replied with, “Other than English, none.” The Asian languages in particular would have been a bit of a challenge that would require a mindful application I just didn’t have, but what of the other languages that use the same Latin symbols and letters? I made a rather naive excuse for it, saying “I’m going to be going to so many countries, there’s no way I could learn the languages of every single one of them!” It sounds lazy, I know, but it was the truth – I was rarely in a country for more than a week, and never exactly knowing where I was going to end up next, so never knowing which language I should prioritise in learning. Because they all had their own languages that were dominant, with no major common lingual factor except – yep, you guessed it – English, in one form or another.

But the honest truth is that I never went into the trek around Europe expecting the world to cater to what was probably my biggest touristic flaw. I was expecting to have a much more difficult time as a monolingual than I did, and the ease with which I actually did around is a surprise for which I am quite grateful. I often found myself playing charades or using broken English in the most obscure or random places, only to be told, “It’s okay sir, I do speak English.” It was slightly humiliating, but it was the one thing I couldn’t escape or distance myself from, or make any immediate move to change that would be directly helpful – by the time I learnt the basics of any language it would be time to move on to the next country! Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, and Europe provided me with more than a handful of awkward and memorable linguistic experiences.

***

The Russian and Mongolian languages and their Cyrillic alphabet did inspire a bit of my fascination with other languages, but for the most part, everyone in Russia and Mongolia spoke Russian or Mongolian, and not much else. It was when I got to Finland that the concept of widespread multilingualism really hit me. I watched on, slightly intimidated, as Susanna’s Finnish friends seamlessly moved between Finnish, Swedish – the countries two official languages – and English, which everyone just seems to know anyway despite it not being an official language. Scandinavia and northern Europe were like that, I was told from the beginning – almost everyone learns English in school, so I should have no problems. Yet I was still exposed to what felt like at least three different languages in each country. It actually made me feel a little less intelligent, to see small children yapping away in a foreign language and switch over to what was an impressive command of rudimentary English, especially for a 5 year old, and back again as though it was nothing. In an attempt to make more excuses, I told myself it was the geography and logistics of Europe than lent its residents to learning so many languages. They have many neighbours in close, bordering proximity, with everyday practical uses for the languages they were learning, and a constant need to practice them. How often were my Year 7 French lessons going to come in handy in the middle of Sydney?

Although I shouldn’t speak so soon – the country where I did encounter my first language barrier was, of course, France.
“The French are so arrogant – they’ll understand English, and know you don’t speak French, but they’ll pretend they don’t know what you’re saying because they think it’s beneath them to speak your language in their country.” That was the general idea a lot of people had told me to expect in France, particularly Paris, but I’m so pleased to say that it was not my experience at all. A lot of the guys I was with for Parisian Pride spoke amongst themselves in French, but when they addressed me they always spoke in English, or at least to the best of their abilities. Which was more than I was doing for them, considering I was in their country, so I feeling nothing but gratitude towards the Parisians I encountered. Well, perhaps a little more than gratitude… whatever language they spoke, Parisian men were still Parisian men.

However, during my frantic last morning at the hostel in Paris, packing before my 12pm check-out time, I was accosted by one of the housekeeping staff. She seemed a little flustered when she entered the room and saw me doubled over my backpack, trying to shove everything inside as quickly as I could. I probably looked like a deer in the headlights too, and we both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she started speaking to me in French.
“Oh… ah… sorry. I don’t speak French,” I said sheepishly. However, she continued motioning to my bed and speaking to me in the foreign tongue.
“Ahh… Check out is at noon? I still have fifteen minutes?” I said, pointing to the clock. She said something else in French, with some emphatic hand gestures, and stared earnestly at me.
“Ahh… I don’t speak French,” I muttered, before trying again. “I’m about to leave, I’m just packing my things now.” I was mortified to realise I had begun raising my voice, as though the housekeeper might suddenly start to understand English if I said what I was saying loud enough. She just looked and me and said something else in French. We both just stared at each other. It was pointless: neither of us had the slightest clue what the other one was saying, and we weren’t talking to each other anymore – we were talking at each other, and it was achieving nothing except frustrating the hell out of us. In the end she just shrugged her shoulders and left the room, in what I can only assume was a non-verbal cue for “Hurry up and pack your things and get the hell out!”

***

Given that northern Europe was better known for the English skills of its residents, it’s no surprise that Spain was the next country to present me with a language barrier, although this time it was an entirely different situation. I learnt a fair bit of Spanish before a trip I took to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and even studied it for a semester at university afterwards. Despite all that, the only phrases I had mastered allowed me to tell people I speak Spanish, just not very well, and to order a beer – priorities, right? It wasn’t much, and it really wasn’t enough when I tried to make conversation after locking lips with a guy on the dance floor at a nightclub in Madrid. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish, or even less, so I basically had to stand there with a blank stare until he finally said something that I even half recognised. Not that he was saying much, other than “guapo“, between our kisses, though. I guess there are some situations where body language really does suffice.

Yet the country does have some other linguistic tensions that are a little bit more important than a Spanish one night stand. When I was in Barcelona I thought my Spanish was just exceptionally poor, but it turns out that in the region of Catalonia, almost everything is written in Catalan, and a lot of the locals get annoyed when you ignorantly launch into speaking to them in Spanish, regardless of your fluency. It meant little and less for me, someone who could hardly speak either, but for a Spanish speaker like Rich it was quite frustrating. But probably not as frustrating as it was to all the local Catalonians who everyone just assumes speak Spanish. I was able to discreetly bow out of that internal national conflict, as my reliance on English wasn’t as likely to offend anyone as much as it would just make them think I was an ignorant tourist.

The way I was able to explore Europe despite only knowing one language does give you an idea of the kind of power that fluency in English can offer you. Some people even find the language rather intimidating. I remember talking about it with Ike when I was staying with him in Ancona. Ike is half Dutch, so he spoke English and Italian as well as a bit of Dutch, but he told me of his own interesting experiences with language in Spain.
“It’s interesting – people are almost afraid of speaking English incorrectly, especially a lot of younger guys”, he mused as I told him my own experiences in Madrid. “I mean, they won’t get better if they don’t practice, but they don’t want to speak it if they can’t speak it perfectly. It doesn’t really make sense. A lot of the guys, they would rather try and speak to me in Italian.” He had a good chuckle remember thing that. “And… I mean, they don’t even know Italian. There’s some small similarities between Spanish and Italian… but, you know, not enough. They’re rather speak to me in terrible Italian than use slightly imperfect English.” It was something that I never came across – most likely because English was the only option they really had when talking to me – and it’s something I still haven’t been able to really explain.

***

Spain and Catalonia aren’t the only regions to have geo-lingusitic tensions. On my first night in Vienna with Kathi, she had explained to me some of the differences between the dialects of German that are spoken in Austria and Germany. “It’s mostly the same, but there are some different words for things that we have that the Germans don’t.” The more she explained it, the more I realised it was much the same as differences between American English and British English and even Australian English. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but you when you think about the different meanings we assign to different words – the use of “thongs” springs to mind – you understand just how much confusion there can be with these slight differences within the language. “It’s also frustrating when we go to Germany,” Kathi continued, “because most of the people in Austria take the time to learn some of the differences in the German they speak in Germany, but not many Germans do they same when they come to Austria.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like they think they’re the ones who speak real German.” I couldn’t help but giggle to myself a little. It was interesting to see that such little problems could be, quite literally, the same in any language.

Yet there were other times when the different language posed absolutely no problems at all, and appeared to exist side by side with the greatest ease. When I arrived in Prague and was sitting down in Tomas and Matej’s kitchen eating the dinner they made me, the two often had short, lively exchanges in another language. When I asked Tomas what language they were speaking, Tomas seemed like he had to pause and think about it for a minute. “Well… I am speaking Czech, and Matej is speaking Slovak.” Tomas was originally from the Czech Republic, while Matej was a native of the neighbouring Slovakia.
“So… the languages are the same?” It was confusing, and seemed like literally the opposite of the kind of thing that Kathi had been talking about with the German language – instead of one language that everyone had trouble understanding, this seemed to be two languages operating like one.
“No, not the same,” Tomas said, thinking more. “They’re just… similar. I can speak Czech, and understand Slovak. Matej can speak Slovak, so we can just speak either.” He shrugged, not thinking much of it, but I found the concept rather mind-blowing: that you could speak in one language and listen to someone else speak in another. It was almost more than my poor little monolingual brain could handle. Considering they both used to be part of Czechoslovakia, I can only assume that the languages must be very similar, but even still, I was slightly amazed.

While I was impressed with the way the two languages operated so smoothly in sync, Prague was probably the least English-friendly city that I visited in the whole of Europe. Buying a bus ticket in the corner store proved to be a bit of a mission – Tomas had been having a cigarette outside, but I had to call him in to help me when I realised the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. After that, I just had to hang on to my old tickets to show her the one I wanted whenever I went to buy a new one. There was enough English to get by in the main touristic parts of town, but I was lucky I usually had Matej or Tomas around whenever I was in the more obscure parts of town, because something tells me I wouldn’t have fared so well there as I had in the rest of Europe. Even sitting down to chat with their neighbours in their award-winning backyard was a bit of a challenge – out of all the places I’d visited, Prague was the city where learning to speak English hardly seemed like a priority at all. Tomas had only learnt it because he had lived in San Francisco several years ago, but he was definitely in a minority of those who did speak English.

***

I am so lucky that the one language that I do speak afforded me so much opportunity to travel relatively unhindered, but the more I saw of the world, the more my status as a monolingual felt like a handicap. I was insanely jealous as I watched people slip between different tongues so easily – I knew they weren’t saying anything specifically more profound than anything that could have been said in English, but it just felt like there was a wealth of knowledge that I was missing out on. Living in a country like Australia, with no countries with direct borders and no extremely obvious choices of a language to learn that might be useful in your own city, I’d never really considered that learning another language would be such a beneficial skill. Now, after travelling around so many different countries and discovering the complexities of a range and huge variety of languages, it’s become another one of my goals to learn, practice, and eventually become fluent in another language. Which language – for now – is undecided, but I have to thank the many companions and friends I made along the way in Europe for inspiring me, and opening my eyes to the importance of languages, and the highly valuable skill of multilingualism.

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Siesta to Sunrise

During the day, Barcelona was a charming city with beautiful attractions that brought forth scores of bustling tourists, particularly in the summer. However, for me the major drawing point had been Spanish nightlife that supposedly emerged after the sun had well and truly gone to sleep. Emphasis on the “well and truly”, because that thing about everything running several hours later in Spanish culture is especially prevalent in the nightclub scene. The general idea I had gotten from both friends and guidebooks was that Spaniards usually ate dinner at 10pm at the earliest, which carried on for a few hours. Afterwards they would head to the bars at around 1am, and not even head to nightclubs to go dancing until around 3 or 4 in the morning. I felt like that might have been an exaggeration – how could people possibly function in daily life if they were not just coming home, but going out at 4am? So I was sceptical – but apparently I still had a lot more than the language during my time in Spain…

***

Despite getting a terrible sleep the previous night on the train from Paris, and spending most of my first day in Barcelona walking around with Rich, we still had plans to hit the town that night. So in the afternoon we had a siesta – I swear, the best thing about Spain is that afternoon naps have been incorporated into their way of life so well that it’s basically a sacred ritual – and then made some dinner and drank some delicious Spanish wine as we got ready to go out. It would have been around 11pm when we left, but our first stop wasn’t a nightclub – it was a shot bar called Chupitos Espit, and it exactly like the Chupitos I had visited with Gemma and Atze in Groningen. They did the same marshmallow toasting shot, which was called the ‘Boy Scout’, the blazing and sparkling Harry Potter shots too. Rich picked out one for us to try, which was some sweet multicoloured shot that we drank through a straw. Then it was my turn – in my defence, the list of shots doesn’t detail their ingredients, only the name and the price. In retrospect, I don’t know how I could have expected anything else when I ordered two drinks by the name of ‘Hot Shot’, but Rich and I exchanged looks of horror when the bartender poured two shots of vodka and then topped each of them off with a hearty dose of Tabasco sauce.

The bar around us was packed with other tourists, and most of them looked just as horrified as the two of us, but in the end we just had to suck it up and down them. It tasted awful – why anyone would knowingly order such a drink I will never be able to fathom – and it was also very spicy. Even Rich, a Thai girl who absolutely loves her spicy food, was pretty disgusted by it. We had only planned to have two shots each, but after that disaster I quickly ordered a couple of Boy Scouts.
“I need something, anything, to get that taste out of my mouth”, I shouted over the thumping music as we roasted our marshmallows over our flaming section of the bar. I burnt my tongue shoving it into my mouth after the shot, but at least the sweetness was enough to overpower the Tabasco sauce that had been lingering on my pallet. There were a bunch of English guys and girls around us who were all getting Boy Scouts, so almost half the bar top was ablaze and we all clinked glasses as we threw back the shots.

After that Rich and I left at bar to head to another nightclub at Plaça Rieal called Jamboree. By Spanish standards it was still pretty early, but Rich had got us put on a guest list that meant we had to be at the bar by midnight if we wanted to get free entry. Loathing cover charges as much as I do, I decided it was a preferable option. As expected, it the club was pretty dead when we arrived, so I got a beer and Rich and I wandered around and explored the space. There was an upstairs room that was playing 90s music and current pop hits, while the lower floor played more urban and RnB tunes. We sat down for a little while and I had a few more drinks as crowds of people trickled into the place. Rich had some other friends who would be coming later, but eventually we hit the dance floor and began to work up a sweat, sticking mostly to the RnB room. Rich has an awesome sense of style that earned her comparisons and descriptions such as an “Asian Rihanna”, and she filled those shoes well, so together we busted some moves on the still relatively sparse dance floor.

I thought back to a conversation I had had with Ralf in anticipation to my trip to Spain. “Barcelona is a little more classy, not like Berlin at all,” he had told me when I had been wondering, like a typical gay man, when I’d get a chance to wear some of the nicer clothes I’d brought along – sometimes I’d been dressing like a homeless person to get into places like Berghain. “You can get away with dressing up: collared shirts, that type of thing. Madrid is a little more casual and dressed down though.” Looking around me as the club filled up, I observed that Ralf’s assessment of Barcelona couldn’t have been more wrong about this particular place. Every second guy was wearing a singlet, and I was one of the few people who wasn’t wearing thongs, or some form of open-toed shoes. I wasn’t too drunk, so I started paying closer attention to the people around me. Between overhearing voices as I was jostled between the shoulders of others dancers, and the shouts and cries as multiple glasses were dropped and smashed on the dance floor, I made the horrific realisation that I was surrounded by other Australian tourists, all of whom who were already beyond wasted. I don’t have anything against Australians, but I can safely say I did not travel halfway around the world to dance in a Spanish club full of them, and my evenings with Ralf and my epiphany about the binge-drinking habits in my own culture were still very fresh in my mind. Combined with the fact I was in a straight bar – something I swore I was done with a long time ago – I quickly realised I had no desire to dance with any of the sweaty bodies around me, and they didn’t have much interest in me either.

At which point Rich’s friends arrived. It was getting late – by my non-Spaniard standards, at least – and I had had an extremely long day, so I took the opportunity to take my leave from the club. I had ceased having fun a while ago, and now I wouldn’t be leaving Rich by herself. I said goodbye and left, and on the lonely walk home I couldn’t help but feel extremely disappointed with my first experience of the nightlife in Barcelona.

***

The following day I did a little bit more research, determined to find my way to a gay bar and do the kind of partying I actually wanted to do. I’d had a blast hanging with Rich, but sometimes a gay has gotta do what a gay has gotta do. However, the evening started relatively early when Rich and I headed to a bar where the school she was studying at in Barcelona was hosting a social drinks event. I got a couple of free drinks because I was with Rich, and a few of the other people there were girls who I had met with Brendon and Rich in Bangkok, so we caught up and shared travel stories of how we all ended up in Barcelona. I also got chatting to a couple of other people, in particular a girl named Selma. She was from Morocco, but was studying here in Barcelona with Rich and the other girls. As I told Selma more about my travel plans, she got very excited when I mentioned I would soon be heading to Rome.
“Ahh, yes! I love Rome! Where are you staying?” When I confessed that I hadn’t gotten that far in my planning, she told me of the lengthy time she had spent in Rome, and that she might have some friends who could help me out. “But maybe if you like, I can give you some ideas of things to do, or an itinerary? There is so much to see and do in Rome, you need to plan it to make the most of it.” So we exchanged contact details, and I thanked her in advance for her help. As the event wrapped up, Rich and her friends were planning to head towards another bar down near the beach, but that was there that I parted ways with them in search for a gay venue.

I wasn’t particularly close, but I had so much time I decided to walk. Outside the historical centre Barcelona really feels like any other modern city. One thing that was strangely common was people selling beer on the street – guys with plastic bags with one or two six-packs, selling cans for €1 each. I remembered drinking on the streets was legal in Germany, but I also knew it was a law that differed country to country. Not that that has ever really stopped me – I mean, I drank on the street in Sydney all the time – but the whole thing just seemed slightly dodgy, and with Rich’s warning of crafty pickpockets ringing in my mind, I avoided eye contact with the beer vendors and passed them without so much as a nod of recognition. So after getting lost a few times in the twisting streets and admiring the illuminated city along the way, I finally arrived at Metro, what I had read to be one of the better gay bars that was open on weeknights.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

I could hear music coming from inside, but there weren’t a lot of people around. All the employees I could see were just standing around casually, like they weren’t even expecting anyone to be there. When I moved over the doorman, he gave me a strange look. “You can come in if you want, I guess… It won’t be busy ’til at least 2:30.” I checked my phone – it was only 12:40am. I sighed and headed back to the street. Maybe there was another bar I could have a drink or two at while I waited? But I had already reached the peak of my inebriation, and my stomach was telling me it was more interested in food than alcohol. As a sat down with a greasy burger in the diner around the corner, I reflected on this situation. It was like my night was playing out in the reverse order that it should have – a long, lonely walk through the street, a sobering meal of junk food, soon to be followed by drinking and dancing at the club. Or so I thought.

While I was eating my burger, I tapped into the free WiFi and checked the various apps on my phone, doing my best to kill some time. As I cycled through them all, I opened one of the gay “social networking” apps, thinking I might find some advice from locals about other places to have a drink or kill some time. I got chatting to a guy named Inti, and after some friendly banter and explaining my predicament, he told me he lived literally right across the from the diner I was in, and that if I wanted to I was welcome to stop by and hang out with him while I waited for Metro to pick up a little bit. The kindness of strangers had been working for me so far, and I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so I took him up on the offer. Inti actually turned out to be a really nice guy, and he even had a couple of beers in the the fridge that he let me drink while I was waiting. I asked if he wanted to come to Metro with me, but he declined the offer, saying that he did have to go to work in the morning.
“I might have something else for you, though,” he said as he shuffled around and searched through some draws, looking inside pockets of clothes as though he had lost something important. “Aha! Here you go.” Inti handed me a couple of small squares of paper. “They’re passes for free entry into Metro.”
“Wow! Thank you so much!” The cover charge for the bar was €19, something I hadn’t been too keen to pay for a mere weeknight.
“I used to live right above Metro,” he said with a reminiscent smile. “Those things used to cover my apartment like confetti!”
We laughed and chatted more, but as 2:30am rolled around I realised that I was starting to fall asleep right there on Inti’s couch. There was no way I was going to last in that club. but I was dreading the idea of trudging all the way back home in my current state. In the end Inti let me stay at his place, so I gratefully collapsed as he went to bed and relinquished myself to my need for sleep. My second night out in Barcelona had again been not what I was expecting, and while it could be viewed as something of a failure, I ended up meeting a really nice guy and making another friend, so it wasn’t a complete waste. But the following night was my final night in Barcelona, and I was determined to party properly.

***

The next night I did everything right. I had a proper siesta. I ate dinner late. I consumed several beers at home and didn’t leave the apartment until after midnight. I still walked half an hour to the club, but I bought beers in the street and drank them along the way. I even had the entry voucher Inti had given me, but was told it didn’t give me free entry, but rather a discounted price from €19 to €10 and a drink voucher for once I was inside. That still seemed like a good deal to me though, so I passed through the front doors and down the stairs into the booming nightclub below.

The place was… I don’t want to say it was deserted, because it wasn’t, but it definitely did not meet my expectations. It was a Thursday, and everyone knows that for homosexuals and the unemployed, the weekend always starts on a Thursday night. But this night in Metro was looking like some kind of messy, underpopulated soirée. I was given a Bingo game card for the game of gay Bingo that supposed to be happening. It wasn’t, and there was no indication from the staff that it would be happening in the near future. I discarded the Bingo card as I claimed my free drink, and stood inconspicuously on the edge of the bar and watched less than a dozen people awkwardly dance around the open spaces of the place that constituted as the dance floor. It would have been an awesome club had it been full, but right now it felt like a vibrant, colourful, yet empty dungeon.

So I sat back people-watched for a little while. The crowd was sparse and the pickings slim, but eventually I saw a group of people standing in a circle close by the bar, looking around with a similar mixture of nervousness and intrigue that I can only imagine that I was exhibiting too. Tired of standing by myself, and realising that the chances of anyone approaching me in such an underpopulated bar were quite low, I picked myself up, not without minor social anxiety, and took myself over to the group.
“Hey there, how’s it going?” I was hoping that I didn’t come across as awkward as I felt. “Just thought I’d come and introduce myself to the obvious tourist group.” A small joke to try and break the ice, but it was lost due to the noise that was emanating around us. One of the guys turned to look at me, and seemed slightly confused for a moment. I don’t think he had heard me the first time.
“Hi, I’m Robert”, I introduced myself.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Fausto.” He had an American accent, so I knew I had been right in spotting the tourists. He introduced me to his friends, two German guys named Holger and Malte. As it turned out, the other two people with them – a Hungarian man and a Korean woman – were people they had only just met, and as I chatted to the three friends, the two of them both dissipated into the sad excuse of a crowd. Even so, I didn’t see them again for the rest of the night.

Fausto and the two Germans were great guys, and I had a great time chatting with them, but here was some underlying awkwardness on my end of the interaction. I was just trying to be nice, chatting to the guys so I wasn’t standing by myself, but I think some of them – if not all of them, had mistaken it as flirting with them. There were a few subtle, tactile moments, but for the most part I kept my distance with all three – I didn’t want to be losing any friends as soon as I made them. But unfortunately, the crowd never really picked up, and the night at Metro began dying too soon after it had kicked off.

“We’re gonna go now,” Fausto told me, “but you should totally come over and hang out with us at our hotel tomorrow. We’re gonna go down to the pool and relax, it should be really nice.” I had to leave the next day, but my train out of Barcelona wasn’t until the afternoon. I told Fausto I’d have to figure out the logistics and get back to him, so we exchanged numbers, and shortly afterwards I said goodbye to my three new friends as they left the club. I hung around a little longer and spoke to a couple of people – an Italian guy who was spacing out on some kind of substance and, of course, an Australian guy from Melbourne – but no one really engaging, so I picked myself up and left not long after Fausto, Holger and Malte had departed. I stumbled home as dawn broke over the city, glad that I’d eventually made a few friends, but not without the overall feeling that I had been seriously disappointed with the nightlife Barcelona had to offer.

***

In retrospect, there are a few things to take into account. Firstly, it was gay pride in Barcelona the weekend before – the same time I was in Paris – so it was quite possible the gay scene had gone into an extended siesta for the week following their major party season. I was also only in Barcelona for weeknights, which can be hit and miss at best. Finally, I later learned that there had a been a series of violent raids on the gay bars in Barcelona before I had arrived, during the weekend of, and the week leading up to, pride. I can’t say for sure, but that may have had something to do with the turnout at the club, and the lack of locals that I met while I was in Barcelona. I can’t say I was impressed with the nightlife in Barcelona, but I would definitely consider returning one day to give it another chance.