Like its very own confection, the shop sat close to the Limmat River where I found myself after three hours of walking through the streets of Zurich, Switzerland. Covered with teems of glossy foil, neon flowers and slender, colourful bars of chocolate, the line up of people waiting to sit in the café or purchase treats blocked out the vision of what was held behind the glass. I chose two slim chocolate bars, a dark chocolate and a coffee one, and waited for the clerk to greet me. I don’t remember the question he asked, but, in an amalgam of all the countries I’d travelled through recently, I stuttered out, “Si…Oui…oh, Ja!” The man burst into laughter.
It’s often said that one of the most unique things about Europe is the cultural diversity of such a small landmass. From the architecture of Gaudi in Spain to the literary history of Paris, France to the striking castles of Germany, beyond what makes each country so unique from its neighbour are the languages that must be learned as one travels from place to place. It is easy enough to drift across a border and observe a new cultural experience, but language can be a more difficult thing to grasp, something that has us fighting for the right words, racking our brain for the thing we’re trying to say whether we possess the knowledge or not.
When I travelled through Europe, I would often find myself studying a sheet full of words when I was taking the bus or train to a new country. There were the basics of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, phrases like “How much?” or “Can I get a table for two?” But, even studying a few basic words is no match for what it is to articulate them effectively in the moment. On my first night in Paris, I was buying groceries at Monoprix, waving my head back and forth as the cashier asked me questions. Finally, he said, “You don’t speak French?” He had been asking me if I needed a bag, and everyone looked up to realize I was not the French girl I had been trying to pass myself off as.
It is easy enough to learn a few words for a few days in order to make going to a restaurant or buying a museum ticket a little bit easier, but – like travelling – there is more to really knowing a language. New words can feel a little bit like marbles in the mouth, and walking the streets of a new place is the same way. It’s easy to observe cultural traditions, whether it’s closed stores on a Sunday or the afternoon siesta, but the reality of what makes them what they are is foreign to us. There is a beauty in being able to hurdle through different countries, absorbing and shedding newfound practices like one does skin, but the lessons we learn often ping no deeper beneath the surface; instead, we begin to know what we already know about ourselves a little better.
For one week while I was in Paris, I took an Intensive French Course through Alliance Française. I would get up at 6:30 AM and walk across Île de la Cité, and already be listening to my French teacher rattle off foreign sentences by 8 AM. I didn’t retain much that week, but we did go over many of the basics I had learned in grade school, the verbs and the appropriate pronunciation for many words. I had learned the lesson of course, but it still didn’t stop me from going into a patisserie a few days later and having the clerk burst into laughter as I over-enunciated the phrase “Je voudrais une Paris Brest.” It is one thing to learn a language and observe a culture; quite a different thing to understand it from the inside, and know it without thinking.