When English Failed me

In 3. Communicating, The Art of Travel Spring 2018, Prague by Sean OhLeave a Comment

During my solo adventure to Poland, I found myself agreeing over and over with Dave Berry’s quote, “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.” I have traveled abroad before, to South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan. However, everywhere I went, I never had any trouble getting around and always got to where I needed, when I needed. Wherever I went, I could always speak the language and read signs telling me where to go, and most importantly, Google Maps never failed me.

This past Thursday, I decided to travel to Krakow, Poland alone as a solo trip was highly recommended and Krakow seemed like an optimal location. I got on the train in Prague and set off, feeling exciting, not knowing what to expect. I got to Poland and the first two hours were the most stressful two hours in my time thus far in Europe. Naively believing that I could just “wing it”, I neglected to research Krakow’s public transportation system and more importantly, currency. I assumed that, like many other European countries, that Poland would use Euros but I was mistaken. The Poles apparently use Zlotys (which actually was a huge problem as I was not able to use the bathroom for the longest time but that’s a story for another time).

Once I got off the train, I searched on Google Maps my next destination and to my horror, it told me to walk for three hours. Yes, three hours. I was sure that I saw online  “Krakow boasts of its thorough public transportation system”, but where was this transportation system now that I needed it? It turns out that the bus and tram lines are not supported on Google Maps and I began to panic slightly. I’m a very practical person who doesn’t like to waste time, so naturally I decided to ask the next person I saw for directions as I assumed that they would know the directions. Fortunately, the guy I asked seemed to know the way. Unfortunately, he began a monologue entirely in Polish and I stared and smiled at him blankly until he finished, gave me a nod, and left. Now the real panic came. I began to think, “am I going to have to walk three hours for this”? Unlike those in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, most people in Krakow did not understand nor speak English. As I had spent most my time in Prague, I simply assumed that most people would be able to speak English, but now I realize that was not only naïve, but also easily offensive. I realized that each country has its own culture and language that we must all respect, and to expect everyone to understand and speak English is a selfish and lazy request.

All this realization was great and perspective changing but the problem still remained. How do I get to my destination? Instead of reading signs, I began to read people and the flow. Luckily I was dropped off at Krakow’s main train station, a major hub of transportation, so all sorts of transportation was available, from trains, buses, and trams. I began to “follow the crowd” and ended up at a tram station underground and found that the what I read online was correct, Krakow had an immensely large and intricate system of public transportation that is impossible for strangers to decipher, much less understand. I decided to ask people around me again, but instead of asking them in English, I chose another method. I pulled up a map on my phone and started to communicate with universal hand gestures and nods. Although slightly primitive, it worked. The strangers had helped me get to where I needed, and I had learned another lesson.

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(Image: The Heart of Krakow; Source: Sean Oh)

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