Sometimes it’s not about the journey or the destination . . . but about the people you meet along the way. ~ Nishan Panwar
Anyone ~ yes, even you ~ can learn to talk easily with locals while traveling.
Even in Paris.
Doing so can seem scary when people often 1) look too busy to talk; 2) are wary of strangers; 3) or speak another language.
But it’s doable. Once you know the secret, your travel life will never be the same.
SO, WHAT’S THE SECRET?
Hint: Remember WHY you want to travel:
- You want to see and experience something new.
- You’re genuinely interested in the people and their culture. So ACT interested.
ASK QUESTIONS in the local language.
Like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, the key to making more meaningful connections in your travels has always been with you.
People love to help others in need. And most are naturally proud of where they come from, so when they discover you’re from elsewhere, they don’t mind answering simple questions that help you enjoy the experience.
For example, if someone asks you for directions, you don’t say, “How would I know?” and keep on walking . . . unless you really don’t know. No, you answer as best you can, maybe even walk some distance with her to make sure she doesn’t get lost. And always ~ here’s the clincher ~ the two of you talk along the way.
That’s why you want to learn, in the language of your travel destination, how to ask questions such as:
Where can I find ________? How do I get to _________? How does one _________? What time does it open/close?
And so on. You can practice any number of questions, but the best are open-ended ones requiring more than a “Yes” or “No” answer.
Your opportunities for connecting with others multiply when you’ve taken time to learn some of the local language. And you don’t need mad language skills to do so.
People hearing you speak even a few words in their language ~ especially if they know it is not your own ~ often go out of their way to help you. They appreciate the interest you’ve shown in their way of life.
Like the first time I tasted escargots.
It happened in a restaurant on the Rue Mouffetard, on the left bank of Paris. The hotel clerk had told me I’d find some good restaurants on that street, so I had stopped at the first one of these that looked interesting and ordered escargots as soon as I spotted them on the menu.
The plump woman who took my order soon sat before me a plate of round-shelled things with some metal implements. They reminded me of tools I’d seen at the dentist’s office, but I knew they were for eating escargots. I just couldn’t figure out how. Finally I threw up my hands and asked:
COMMENT EST-CE QU’ON . . .? (HOW DOES ONE . . . ?)
At that, the woman who had been sitting a short distance away, watching me, began to smile. She hurried over with a chuckle, took my “dentist tools” ~ the escargot tong and fork ~ in her hands, and demonstrated how I was to use them.
We both laughed as I showed myself a good pupil and began eating. In the conversation that followed, she asked how I liked the escargots. I told her they were DÉLICIEUX and, to this day, I remember those buttery, garlicky things as the best escargots I’ve ever had.
I also remember that woman’s kindness and good humor.
Maybe you’re asking yourself: If it’s this easy to talk to people abroad, why haven’t I ever done it?
Could it be you’ve been thinking too much about yourself?
- You don’t speak the language perfectly so you’ll make a mistake. (As if any of us speak English perfectly.)
- You’re want to look cool, as if you know your way around when you don’t. (Had I acted like a cool “know-it-all” on the Rue Mouffetard I might never have had a good laugh with my amiable hostess. And I’d have stayed hungry, too. )
- You’re just plain scared.
Forget about your sweet self already. And fix your mind on learning as much as possible about the people and the places you’re traveling so far to see. You might not get another chance, so don’t waste it by not fully being there.
Self-forgetfulness and curiosity will lead you to speak French in Paris, Spanish in Madrid, even Japanese in Tokyo although you’ve only a toehold understanding of the language.
The bonuses to you are priceless:
- You’ll become increasingly fluent with every question asked and the resulting conversation.
- You’ll spend less time indoors studying maps and guidebooks and more time out-and-about, getting info along the way like people normally do.
- You increase your opportunities to make a new friend. (Perhaps a really good friend.)
That’s what happened to Canadian-born artist Janice MacLeod while vacationing in Paris.
She frequented a certain cafe every day and it wasn’t long before she and a fellow working in the shop across the street were making goo-goo eyes at each other. Finally, one day, she stopped by and asked his name. He told her, they’ve since married, and Janice now calls Paris home.
All because she bothered to express her interest and curiosity to a stranger.
No guarantee you’ll end up with the love of your life if you do the same . . .
But you will have a really good time ~ possibly your best trip ever.
PREPARE TO TALK & TRAVEL
1) Look back: In what ways might you have benefitted by talking to “strangers” on your last trip?
2) Look ahead: Where are you going on your next trip and what language is spoken there?
3) Act: If you don’t know the language well, write down 3-5 questions in the host country language to practice saying now. Use some or all of the questions I’ve posed in this post or make up your own. If you do speak the language, identify one or two aspects about the culture that interest you most, and compose 3-5 questions in the language to help you learn more about it.