The Power of Language

Constant train travel requires constant entertainment. Reading and gazing out of the window only last so long until boredom-eating and napping become the norm. During a four-day journey across Russia, I took advantage of a half-hour stop at Ilanskaya in Siberia, wove my way around the babushkas selling dried fish and wild strawberries on the platform, and bought a pack of playing cards—only to discover back on board that they contained 36 cards, reducing the range of games available to snap and memory.

However, my favourite pastime is pretending to sleep while eavesdropping on conversations—as long as I understand the language. Over the last eight weeks, my deepest sorrows have centred on my linguistic abilities, or lack thereof. Owing to my two-year stint in Chennai as a child, I can still read and write Hindi and Sanskrit, I read French at university, and have a basic understanding of Spanish and German, which extends to refusing sauerkraut with pork, asking for a pet rabbit for Christmas, and a few verses of The Beatles’ Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand. But in Portugal, Latvia, Russia and China, I struggled to the point of tears. A recent study by Washington’s Pew Research Center shows that European children are required to learn two foreign languages, while in the UK we begin at secondary school, and it’s not compulsory beyond the age of 15. This goes some way to explaining why I’ve often been reduced to little more than a gesturing mute illustrating my needs with photos, pointing and the kind of body language more suited to a toddler.

Alone. Mute. Confused.

Alone. Mute. Confused.

Nothing separates us like language. Stories become lost, needs are misunderstood, relationships stunted. Language is power. As you might expect, this has given rise to a few disasters, one of which took place at a laundrette in Florence. Living out of a rucksack, my daily choice of wardrobe is fairly simple: is it clean? I don’t remember the last time I saw, let alone used, an iron, so when I sauntered past a laundrette near my hotel, I seized the opportunity to offload the whole rotten bag. My Italian is awful, but the jolly-looking owner with a big smile and glasses hanging around her neck seemed to understand me. Esmeralda pointed to her washing machine and I nodded. She gave me a thumbs-up. She then put on her glasses, tipped out the bag that contained six balled-up T-shirts, two pairs of sweat-drenched cargo pants, eight pairs of underwear, one pair of socks and a cardigan missing several buttons. I pointed again at the washing machine to confirm that this was all one load and she laughed and high-fived me. I climbed onto a chair to point to 8 o’clock on her wall-clock and she gave me another thumbs-up. Thrilled that we were on the same page, I left.

Just before 8pm, I pushed open her door and the bell tinkled. All my laundry was on the table top, ironed and slotted into a clear plastic packet. Esmeralda put on her glasses and began to tap into a calculator as I fingered the freshness with glee. Then she took off her glasses and turned around the calculator that read 109. The entire surface of my skin prickled with fear and she laughed and shook her head. Silly Esmeralda! She’d forgotten the decimal point. Only she hadn’t. She had forgotten to add an additional €9 and the total came to €118. You may recall that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron sees the mileage on his dad’s Ferrari and goes into shock. It was like that, only more dramatic with a lot of pacing and flinging of hands. I could have bought new clothes for that amount. I could have flown home to London for that amount. Esmeralda’s smile had morphed into a smirk now, and I suspected that her English was a lot better than she had let on. She spoke into her phone’s Google Translate app and held it out to me where it read: “What do you want to do?” I wanted to reply: “Torch your shop.” But refrained and took her phone from her, enunciating “I. Am. Not. Paying”, before handing back her phone. It was the most passive aggressive argument I have ever had. In the end, I pushed her down to around €70, but it taught me a damn fine lesson and I made a mental note to learn Italian at the next opportunity.

On the other hand, there have been moments in my favour. After eight weeks of trudging around in flip-flops, my feet had come to resemble those of an elephant. So a few days ago, I stopped off at a Bangkok beauty parlour to have a pedicure. A French girl was sitting to my left waiting for her magenta toenails to dry, sipping at fresh coconut water and updating her friend behind the curtain with vigour on the extent of her stomach problems. Much to her horror, my therapist soon brought out a blade for my heels—something that is as normal in Asia as it is alien in the West. She watched open-mouthed, lowered her voice, and quickly became engaged in a furious discussion with her friend, who, judging by the ripping sounds, was having her entire body waxed. I listened with bemusement to her revulsion which was littered with “disgusting”, “foul” and “I want to be sick”. Eventually she told her friend, “She should be embarrassed.” At this last comment, I turned to the girl and asked her in French why I should be embarrassed. After all, I wasn’t the one who had just described how I had had diarrhoea for the last two days and couldn’t keep down solids. As she turned the colour of her toenails, I told her to try lassi and swanned off on my lovely smooth feet. Language really is power.