Tales from a tongue-tied traveler

When people hear that I took an around-the-world tour of 12 countries, they perk up and ask, "Wow! How many languages do you speak?"

"Well," I reply, "I took some French in high school, and there's English...." They still listen to my tales, but a little less eagerly, as if being monolingual makes me a second-class traveler.

I'm baffled by people who pick up new languages in a snap. But since my trip involved four months in Cairo, I was determined to learn Arabic. Every day I begged Rabea, the teenage son of my host family, to teach me. Rabea grew up speaking a trilingual tangle of Ara-Frenglish. He was not pleased with his new pupil.

"Gediid," Rabea would call out.

"Oh, oh, oh - I know it! Gediid, gediid. No, wait. 'Old'!" I'd say, wiping my brow.

He'd roll his eyes. "Noooo! It's 'new'!"

I persevered, though, even taking an Arabic class at a local community center. I'd leave class humming songs by Umm Kulthoum, Egypt's first lady of music, ready to take my vocab to the streets.

When I'd get to the market, some tough lady would be dickering with the vendor over the price of burtu'aan (oranges). What can I say? The spiraling Arabic instantly dazed me. It took me a half-hour to finally ask "Bikam di?" (How much is it?)

Too embarrassed to admit I'd missed the answer, I'd fork over too much money - the salesman's smile always gave it away.

But I did have a victorious moment in Egypt. A Bedouin cowboy followed me and a friend halfway up Mt. Sinai, pestering us to abandon our feet for the saddle. Finally, I narrowed my eyes, Clint Eastwood-style, and said "mish mish."

The phrase means "apricot" in classical Arabic, but it's also street slang for "it ain't gonna happen." He laughed himself silly before moving on to greener tourists.

My mouth's attempts to go native led me astray many times. A Tibetan nomad and I used a Lonely Planet phrasebook to haggle over a yak to carry my pack. He kept refusing my offer and trying to extend the trip, but finally agreed on three days for 50 quai - a bargain rate of five bucks a day. I learned that this meant a day-and-a-half out and a day-and-a-half back when he abandoned me atop a 15,000-foot mountain pass.

Trying to decipher a Cyrillic menu in Sofia, Bulgaria, I bought an eye-opening breakfast of bitter tripe soup and a pot of baked cheese. In the Bulgarian countryside, English was even more alien, and I became a comic mime, pointing and gesturing wildly.

On the long journey to Rila Monastery, I anxiously scrutinized the landscape for some sign that I was on the right bus. Meanwhile, the standing-room-only crowd studied my face for a similar omen.

Finally, a little fellow wearing a camouflage cap spied the tag on my bag and yelled "San Francheeseco!" A feeling of comfort rushed over me: I was still on the right planet, at least.

Not knowing the language also made me prey for funnymen. In Khon Kaen, Thailand, I stopped to watch a variety show at the city's annual Silk Festival. The emcee quickly picked out the foreigner in the crowd. "Excuse me. What's your name? Where you from?" he asked.

"America!" I shouted, surprised at my own pride.

"Blah blah blah BLAH Amelika! BLAH Blah blah," he replied. The crowd turned their 200 eyes to me and roared.

I was struck dumb by another wise guy while trekking in northern Thailand. He called me "honey" and introduced me as his new wife. Villagers beamed. They could not understand my vehement protests.

Most places, I'd just figure out a dozen all-purpose phrases - I was a writer, thankful, and fine. I felt like a doll that, in a stilted voice, says one of four cute things each time you pull her string. This probably kept me out of a lot more trouble.

There's also something magical about plunging into an impenetrable language. It jolts one out of one's mental easy chair and into Alice-in-Wonderland territory, where everything and nothing makes sense.

I loved play-reading newspapers in Amman, Tel Aviv, Katmandu, and Bangkok, inventing stories about the pictures and admiring the ornate alphabets of Arabic, Hebrew, Nepali, and Thai. I didn't need to know who won the football match or that air pollution was at a record high.

And once I accepted that learning a new language was "mish mish" to me, I could simply enjoy the music of conversation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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