Yesterday I went on an NYU sponsored trip to Czech Switzerland National Park, a majestic forest filled with unbelievable views that make you feel as if you are in Narnia. (Indeed, some of the shots in the Narnia film series were filmed in this park–my inner child practically skipped up the hill with absolute joy…to the frustration of my legs today.) The park, also known as Bohemian Switzerland, borders Germany such that all of the signs interspersed along the hiking trails were in either Czech or German. We also went on two brief boat rides on which the tour guides spoke only Czech and German. That was perhaps the first time in my life when I did not understand a single word. It was frustrating but also relaxing because it is a reality I have to accept.
I was not born a polyglot. In order for me to appreciate the beauty of diversity I have to welcome the possibility of incomprehension. There is beauty in not understanding anything because the purity of the language and culture remain. They are not tainted by inadequate translations which can severely decontextualize and reduce what is being translated. Thus, I contented myself with just sitting in that rocking boat, enjoying the scenery which could only be properly accompanied by the sound of chipping birds, lapping water, and the Czech language. However, I do recognize that this linguistic limitation in addition to the lack of phone service in the mountains made me realize that if I had gone alone, I most certainly would have gotten lost, and my NYU Prague experience would have been cut short.
In preparation for this semester abroad, I knew very well that communicating would prove to be a challenge I had not really endured in my past travels. I have had the fortune of traveling to Latin American countries, other European countries, and even Morocco–places where English, Spanish or French are spoken. Although I knew that the touristic appeal of the Czech Republic has increased, and thus the need to adopt English would prove “necessary,” I imagined I would still have difficulty communicating. This certainty both excited me and frightened me but I knew learning to communicate non-verbally, and forcing myself to pick up a word here and there were indeed “worthwhile lessons.” I do not want to be a passive tourist. My goal is to be as immersed as possible: to be an active traveler, a potential resident.
As Dave Berry’s quote elucidates, English does seem to have monopolized the language of travel which only furthers the hegemony of the US and England, an imperial dynamic I find problematic. I did not want to participate in this hegemony, so I was ready to struggle with communicating. And I have struggled a little because although English is spoken in tourists sites and in the city center, and there is limited English in the metro (such as “Výstup/Exit” signs), English is not ubiquitous. For example, I have to have my Google Translate app open when I am grocery shopping for fear that I will purchase the wrong thing and potentially poison myself. (One time while I was in the communal kitchen with a Czech RA she told me that every time she opened the cupboards, she would find that some students had purchased fruit-scented soap instead of seasoning because the bottles are only labeled in Czech and display stickers of food.)
In order to feel more like a “local,” I have actively practiced the important words I learned in my intensive Czech class during orientation week: dobrý den (hello), dobré ráno (good morning), dobrou noc (good night), dobrý večer (good evening), děkuji (thank you), and prosím (please). I have also practiced ordering in restaurants in Czech. What has taken me aback in my Czech-speaking endeavors is that locals are quickly eager to engage in a Czech conversation with me after I speak a few, heavily accented Czech words. Can’t they hear my accent? Can’t they see that I clearly look like a non-native? Perhaps they can but they appreciate that a non-native has taken the time to learn and apply what she has learned, and not live in their country superficially.
While I avidly search for opportunities to interact with different cultures, languages and people, and can treasure their uniqueness, I do my best not to fetishize what is unknown to me. Thus, unlike de Botton, I would never use the problematic term “exotic” to describe far away lands different from what I am accustomed to because as he very well explains, the term “exotic” is synonymous with Orientalism, and the depiction of the Middle East as doubly barbaric and fantastical. I can nevertheless, share with him the respect of attraction to the “charm of a foreign place [that offers] novelty and change” (75). I do absolutely believe that: “We may value foreign elements not only because they are new but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland can provide” (de Botton, 76); I am just trying to figure out “my identity” right now, which is partially why I travel, because what better way to learn more about myself than in a new city, unobstructed by my past and my preconceived ways of viewing the world?