Three women wearing burkas swept along, chatting expressively among themselves. Well-dressed families and couples sauntered past one another, noses in the air, headed toward either the AirFrance lounge or the AirItalia lounge, which were strategically positioned at a diagonal from one another.
I sat in the no man’s land between the two lounges at JFK International Airport. Technically, I was still in the States. Technically, it was okay if English was the only language I spoke fluently. Technically, I was still in my country, though perhaps no longer on my turf. Already, even in the hodgepodge that is the international departure terminal, I had begun to feel like an outsider. My country did not operate the airlines stationed at the gates around me. The food served by the restaurants and kiosks was foreign – sausage rolls, pastries I had not seen before, and kebabs comprised some of the fare. English was not the primary language spoken by the other people at my gate and in the stores. I was getting anxious.
To take my mind off the discomforts of being a foreigner and to stretch my legs before the nine-hour flight that would make me one, I decided to scavenge for food. I found an insanely expensive bottled smoothie and a suspiciously healthy-looking carton of trail mix at a news store and made my way toward the cashier line. There was a short, wrinkled woman ahead of me. She looked to be in her seventies and evinced the tough-as-nails, mama-bear aura that comes from mothers who have shepherded their children through tempestuous pastures. The cashier scanned a soda and a prepackaged turkey and cheese sandwich that the woman had selected from the store’s dismally limited (and did I mention expensive?) stock and announced the price.
The woman stared at the cashier, opened her wallet, then looked back at the cashier.
“Eleven twenty-three,” the cashier repeated.
The line grew longer behind me. The woman pulled a five-dollar bill from her wallet and offered it to the cashier, who shook her head and repeated, “Eleven twenty-three.”
The woman returned the five-dollar bill to her wallet and handed over a ten-dollar bill.
“No, no, no. Eleven – “ here the cashier held up two index fingers “ – twenty-three.”
At last, the woman extracted a twenty-dollar bill, which the cashier accepted, and the woman, unphased, walked away with her turkey and cheese sandwich. This, I thought dejectedly, is my future. After a certain point when working with a language barrier, you learn that the majority of things will mostly work out. You learn to expect that every interaction will be harder. You become better at charades. Regardless, struggling to accomplish the most basic human transactions is alienating and exhausting. And I was not looking forward to this element of my year in Greece as I boarded my flight.
A few days after I arrived in Greece, I caught a bus to Thermi, a suburb of Thessaloniki, intending to find a grocery store where I could purchase toiletries and a bit of food. Despite the fact that the grocery store I located had only five aisles, one entire hour of my time was lost to scouring the shelves. Was that a tub of yogurt or cottage cheese? Which of the buttons on the scale in the fruit aisle means “peaches”? Where in the name of personal hygiene is the soap??? I never found the soap or shampoo or toothpaste or anything else that helps a person to smell okay, and I proceeded to the checkout counter with a box of cereal, four peaches, a tub of what turned out to be yogurt, a box of green tea, and a roll of tape (they had tape but not soap?).
“Gibberty jab gib jibberty jab jab,” the woman behind the counter said.
I gave her my best deer in the headlights look.
“Jab gibbity jab jab,” the woman said with more volume and furrowed brows.
“Uhhhhh…” Thinking she had perhaps asked whether I would pay with cash or card, I opened my wallet and pointed at the crumpled bills within.
There was a moment of silence as the woman and I stared at each other, at a loss for how to proceed, until the man who had checked out before me said, “Globbity gluk gluk,” which I understood to mean, “Good luck with this one.”
The man chuckled and the woman smiled and shook her head and I wanted nothing more than to melt into my shoes, find a bottle of soap there, and never emerge.It is my familiarity with this feeling of not understanding that I blamed for my hesitation to strike up more conversations with the folks who I had, after all, travelled over 5,000 miles to get to know. Why would anyone knowingly inflict the trauma of miscommunication on anyone else? It would be rude, wouldn’t it? Maybe even mean-spirited? Wouldn’t both the Greek people and myself be better off if everyone just interacted on a need-to-speak basis? For instance, if every single toiletry item known to humankind had vanished from the face of the country?
Some further probing and a rare burst of introspection made me wonder whether it was others’ not understanding or my not being understood that tied my tongue. When I first arrived in Spain during a college study abroad semester two years previously, my host mother adopted a look of hostile confusion every time I tried to speak to her in what I firmly believed was good (enough) Spanish. It was awful. And it is the same expression that I read on the faces of those with whom I tried to speak while in Greece – that is, those strangers who, despite their best efforts, had not been able to avoid me like a newer, more contagious version of the Plague. All it took was a few mortifying blunders on my part to break the ice between my Spanish host mother and me (for example, when I sleepwalked into my host mother’s bedroom at four in the morning). We quickly developed a system – if I smiled, then she would smile, and if she furrowed her brow, then I would do the same. We empathized physically until I developed the verbal abilities necessary for us to empathize mentally as well. By the time I departed from her care, we were as thick as thieves.
I never did master the Greek language in the same way that I mastered Spanish; however, I felt just as foolish during my time in Greece as I tried to navigate cultural and linguistic barriers, and, as a result, I made just as many lasting connections. Eventually, I even found a bar of soap.
Eleanor is an outdoor and travel enthusiast who recently graduated from Connecticut College. She is currently learning how to be an adult in Davidson, North Carolina.