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The Art of Travel: How to Have Meaningful Conversations When We Don’t Speak the Language


Marie Francoise was our Airbnb host in Sayulita. She made our stay in this beautiful town truly special. Although her native language is French, Marie Francoise spoke English well, and communicating with her was always enjoyable and effortless.


On our three-month European adventures, Carla and I usually visit more than one country, and each, of course, has its own language. Although we try our best to learn some key phrases, we are rarely able to speak even at a beginner’s level. We cope by learning some essential phrases for things like ordering food, asking for directions, and saying please and thank you.

 

Even with our very limited language skills, we are still sometimes able to have meaningful conversations with people that we meet along the way. Our successes come from fully participating in the communication process and utilizing all our senses, not just verbal communication.


This is our friend, whom we met at the train station in Nîmes, France. He's from Ukraine, and when this photo was taken, he and his young wife and child had only recently managed to leave war ravaged Ukraine. At the time, he was also working on getting his mom out.


When you’re not fluent in a language, other elements of communication become more important, like hand gestures, body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. These non-verbal cues, along with an intuitive sense of reading others’ emotions and intentions, help bridge the language gap. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn about someone by being present and paying attention to their entire being, even if you don’t consider yourself very intuitive.


Alycia worked at a restaurant we frequented in Málaga, Spain, and we quickly became friends. Despite the language barrier, we had many wonderful conversations.


In many cultures, gestures are just as expressive as words. A lot can be conveyed through a nod, smile, or a pointed finger. Our hands and arms are tools of expression, and we use them to mimic actions and illustrate concepts, as if we’re skilled in the art of mime. A physical gesture I often use, which is easily understood and greatly appreciated, is placing my hand over my heart, and nodding slightly when expressing gratitude. This gesture is universally acknowledged as a heartfelt way to say, “thank you,” conveying warmth and kindness across different languages. The use of gestures is not just beneficial, but occasionally necessary, particularly when our speech is limited.


A street musican playing a Van Morrison song (left), and Van Morrison (right).


During our first trip to Europe, Carla and I spent some time in Valencia, Spain. While wandering through this beautiful city, I stopped to listen to a street musician playing a Van Morrison song - a delightful surprise. As I stood there, a woman joined me, clearly enjoying the music as well. I smiled politely, and soon we were talking about Van Morrison, although calling it a "conversation" might be a bit of a stretch. Despite the language barrier - with my limited Spanish and her minimal English - we managed to communicate enough for me to learn a bit about her. I found out she loves Van Morrison, saw him live in Madrid, and that this street performer is her favorite in Valencia because he primarily plays Van Morrison songs. Our conversation is one of my favorite memories from that trip because I was amazed at how well we could communicate with so little shared language.

A group of young Spanish students approached us in Cadiz, Spain, curious as students tend to be. Despite the language barrier, we had a wonderful conversation. When I asked if I could take their picture, they happily agreed.


If our interaction had been recorded, it might have looked more like a workout than a conversation due to all the gesturing and animated expressions we used to communicate. Nevertheless, I left that interaction feeling satisfied with our conversation and its success. To my amazement, it truly worked.

 

By fully engaging with someone and observing their non-verbal cues, we can gain valuable insights, whether we’re communicating in a foreign language or our own. It’s a powerful reminder that effective communication involves using our entire being, not just words alone. Full engagement requires active listening, intentional communication, and utilizing all our senses to understand and be understood.


Steven is a surfer with whom I had several great conversations while in Sayulita, Mexico. Two years ago, he read Eckhart Tolle's, The Power of Now, which he said changed his life. He's now following his dreams and his heart.


As Carla and I travel, we’ve learned that communication is about building connections. I acknowledge that we don’t always give our “full engagement” in every interaction. While it may be the right thing to always prioritize genuine communication, there are times when we simply get lazy and opt for the easier path. However, more times than not, we do make the effort, and when that happens, we’re always grateful that we stepped out of our comfort zones. Meeting people from different parts of the world and interacting with them, despite our language barriers, is an exhilarating experience and has made us think about true communication in an entirely different way.  


I'm with with three modern-day friars I met at the train station when we were leaving Assisi. We had an interesting conversation about Francis and how each of them became Franciscans.


At its core, travel is about forging connections with different people. The most meaningful travel experiences happen because of the people we meet along the way - the conversations, shared moments, and unexpected friendships that leave a lasting impression. Connecting with people during travel is a powerful way to respect and honor their culture and homeland. When we take the time to engage with those that we meet along the way, we are open to new perspectives and ways of life, allowing us to glimpse the world through another’s eyes.


Ultimately, it's these connections that enrich our travel experiences, transforming them from mere vacations into journeys of personal growth and understanding. They allow us to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, revealing the common humanity that binds us all.

 

 

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4 Comments


Guest
May 03

Nice article Simcha! Yes, I agree with you connections and communication is what traveling is all about. On another note...I was wondering if you could ask Carla where she purchased the dress she's wearing in the 1st photo. It's really nice and just what I'm looking for. Obviously the same dress is probably not available, however they may still carry the same type of styling. Thanks in advance! Barbara-Lynn here.

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Guest
May 04
Replying to

Thanks Carla! I wrote my name at the end of my post. Barbara-Lynn. I know Simcha from 30 yrs ago when he lived in CH.

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