I was in Budapest, desperate to find an ATM before leaving to go to Montenegro, which at the time, I was told, did not have ATMs. I rushed down the windy streets, beleaguered by my imagination, which kept throwing up vivid images of me, broke, hauled off to prison for not paying for my hotel room. Or worse yet, my colleagues getting a call about the idiot new person in the office, who’d managed to forget to bring the right currency with her.
I’d gotten money out of one ATM, but then it refused to give more, assuming no-one but the most incorrigible crook would require over $200 on any given day. And I only had one given day. The other ATMs just regurgitated my card, without nary an effort to access my account. I was wiped with stress when I finally stopped to question a man on the street.
“I need an ATM,” I said to him in feeble English, gesturing with my arms to show a big box, something that I’m sure explained a lot to him.
He looked at me quizzically but warmly. “Parla italiano?” he asked.
Oof. “No.” I said this in as Italian an accent as I could. “Vi govorite po Russki?” I asked, hopefully.
“Nyet,” he answered, and then asked, “Parlez-vous le francais?”
I shook my head. “Govorite li Srpski yezik?” (Serbian)
He shrugged, then asked me another question. I couldn’t even discern the name of the language, and shook my head.
“Ata medaber Ivrit?” I asked, turning to Hebrew now.
Nope. “Habla Espanol?”
Gah! I shook my head, and in a small voice asked, because it seemed so in keeping with our pattern of conversation, “Sprechen Sie Deutch?”
Mind you, I don’t speak German. I just know how to ask it.
Thankfully, he didn’t either. Finally we just stood there, the wind out of our sails, feeling like weeny little monoglots, almost embarrassed to catch one another’s eyes. How could we know so many languages between us, yet none at all in common? In my mind, I know I was thinking, ‘how do you not know Russian? With your history?’ And I wouldn’t be suprised if behind his kind smile lurked the stunned question: ‘how can you not know a SINGLE European language, you mangy fool??’
Then with an encouraging smile, he prompted me wordlessly to repeat my initial question. I said the word ATM in as many languages as I knew, and phantomimed taking money out of an invisible box. His face lit up, and he pulled me by my sleeve out of the building. There, on the corner, he threw out his arms in one direction then another, counting blocks off with his fingers. It was magic. Without a word, we communicated.
I beamed at him gratefully, because I couldn’t thank him and he touched his hand to his heart, and with that, and the bows of two happy Westerners, we parted to continue our lives.
So love isn’t the only language that doesn’t require words. It seems we all sometimes need to take money out of ATMs, at least in Europe and the US, and language fanatics the world over can’t give up on a conversation once started. Even if in the end we use only the language of the body… though not quite like lovers do. 🙂
* I was reminded of this “conversation” when reading Sara’s Blog this morning. 🙂