When deciding to live in another country one must accept the sacrifices that have to be made with regard to comfort and familiarity. There will be days when you feel completely lost because of a language barrier. There will be times when a simple act – like going to the post office or the grocery store – will turn into a horrible, stressful incident. The unwritten agreement to living in a foreign country is such that total comfort and capacity for communication are given up in exchange for the experience.
I have had some practice with this before. In 2008, I spent 9 months in Slovenia, and returned for my second tour of Europe in 2010, where I stayed in Helsinki for half a year. But these experiences did not put me in over my head all that often. Both of these cities are capitals, both have a high quality of English language education, and I had a strong safety net in both. In Slovenia, I had Slovene roommates and family to provide support, and in Finland I lived with a Finn. It’s amazing how difficult it is to do basic things without this support system in place. As I said, most in these countries speak English well enough, but there are many who do not. Trying to order a pizza over the phone, for example, can become a demanding, time-consuming, and eventually overwhelming episode.
Though, these experiences have given me practice. After three different countries, more times than not, the culture shock isn’t noticeable anymore. I simply adapt to the new surroundings and eventually forget about the basic things I am no longer capable of doing. It’s only when I’m with other people – those who are doing their first long-term hops abroad – that it stands out. Oh yeah, I guess it is weird that you have to order your cheese by weight. And I suppose it would be easier if we could… Perhaps this unrecognized adaptation is a good thing; a skill one must require to ramble around from place-to-place without losing control.
There are good days and bad days. Most of the time I am unfazed, but occasionally it stands out and I really wish I could speak more Czech/Finnish/Slovene/whatever. It would save so much time, energy, effort, and sanity. Occasionally you’ll pick up pieces of the language through osmosis. Those phrases that are the most useful and repeated tend to stick in your skull. But anything outside of these basic commands or requests is dim. And it’s at those moments – when someone is asking you a question and all you can do is smile apprehensively and nod – where you feel completely naked, useless, and unable to interact with anything in your environment. And this can be overwhelming.
I’ve gotten tired of repeating: Nemluvím česky. It’s pretty much the only thing I get to say in Czech some days. It’s gotten to the point that I often don’t bother to explain to the person coming up to me on the street that I don’t speak Czech, and instead I simply wave them off and continue on my way. But sometimes I think to myself: If I have to say ‘Nemluvím česky’ one more time today, I’m going to lose it! And because of this I’ll often blow by the person and pretend to be heavily invested in my iPod. Which makes me feel like a dick. Nobody likes to completely ignore the girl scouts outside the Metro station. Who does that?
But sanity and comfort are the sacrifices made for the experience. And I would make this trade a hundred more times if I needed to. There is too much here to be muddled down with such things. It is shitty at times, and I wish I could make phone reservations and read menus, but there are too many advantages. I get to spend my days in a breathtakingly beautiful city, in a country with an amazingly different culture, drink the finest beer in the world at a steal of a price, work full-time in a different country, pick up little bits of Czech like a sponge – simply by walking around all day overhearing conversations and reading stuff on signs, and spend my spare time drinking Pilsner Urquell in the sun. On top of that, these barriers often make even the most mundane tasks or experiences much more interesting – something I am not afforded in Canada.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate it anymore. It’s just that I’ve just gotten desensitized to the situation. I haven’t been in an English-speaking country in close to a year. I imagine it will be a very funky experience to go back and visit the family. When I returned from Slovenia, I remember how odd it was to walk down the street and hear two Canadian accents pass me by. That said, it would probably be beneficial for me to sit back and consider the randomness of my situation once in a while. I imagine this would lead to a greater appreciation of the ongoing adventure.