“Do You Speak English?” – A Guilty Convenience

Despite growing up in a town of 1000, I was never a kid who dreamt of running away to join the circus. That was probably as much about Jamestown not exactly being stop one on the circus route as anything else. Might’ve been keener if I’d seen just one fucking lion sitting on a stool.

But while lion stoolage is one thing, I didn’t see myself sailing the seas, climbing mountains or hacking through the jungle either. Cheers world, but Jamestown has a creek, a hill AND a forest. Yep, for the first 17 years of his life this little fishy was pretty content with his little patch of Mid North South Australian earth.

But just as many grow out of that running away to join the circus dream, I’ve grown right on into it.

So here I am in Budapest, typing away in the most hipster, wanker, fundamentally impractical apartment Airbnb could muster (2x bikes, one with motor, one without, both unusable), enjoying me a Hungarian summer. Admittedly it’s no Jamestown, but it’ll do.

Hungarian Motorbike Sidecar
The ‘H’ is for hipster and don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise

The travel bug of which I’m a victim has been caught largely because for me, and for anyone with an Australian passport, Australian dollars and the ability to speak the Queen’s tongue, travel is a fucking breeze. Being an English speaker is what the kids call phat. You can go anywhere, and I mean anywhere, and at least one person will have watched enough movies or listened to enough music to be able to understand you. Thanks Pitbull.

The meat markets of rural Bolivia – they got English. The lip plate tribes of Ethiopia – you know they got English. The chilly Highlands of Northern Scotland – honestly no fuckin’ idea but according to them, yeah, that’s English.

PRO TIP: Buy a change of underwear then ask a Scot to say ‘Cadbury Curly Wurly.’ HEAVEN.

So back we come, to ruminating on my childhood. A childhood, in some ways, of missed opportunity. Because while speaking English is great, throwing down a ‘how ya been old duck?’ to a shawled Hungarian running her great grandpappy’s goulash stand can feel a bit off.

Bolivian markets
Admittedly English in Bolivian meat markets is pretty much limited to ‘NO PHOTO [hissing sound]’
It’s tempting, indeed normal, to feel entitled as an English speaker; to assume that the other party will make the effort to understand. But I’m beginning to understand the heinous amounts of piss that has been taken by yours truly, and indeed continues to be.

As I remember it, I did near enough a decade of German lessons at school. From early primary through to late high school I took multiple classes of Deutsch every week.

In those years of hard study I learnt no less than the following:

  • The word Deutsch, which means German
  • How to count from eins to zehn [that’s one to ten, cool cats]
  • heiß [hot] and kalt [cold], which allowed me to find gummibärchen [gummy bears] hidden around the classroom
  • Zum geburtstag [happy birthday to you] because it meant cake

I’d be fine in an emergency situation in rural Germany as long as the emergency was low blood sugar related and could be remedied with 1-10 gummy bears or birthday cakes. Or hot/cold wasser.

“You photo. Of me.” My lack of Portuguese means that I’ll forever wonder exactly why this Mozambican needed a photo of himself on my phone.

Sure, Frau B and Frau H knew their way around the language, and were capable (if uninspiring) teachers. But let’s face it, it’s not the sexiest tongue, and only comes in handy in one very specific part of the world or when trying to understand the plotline of offbeat pornography. It was also introduced to me at a time when my priorities were directed more toward chicken nuggets and throwing rocks at cats than they were international travel. Sugar related content aside, not eins bit of German stuck.

These 10 years of disinterest sucked the air out of my foreign language balloon, and only middling attempts have since been made. I remember having a particularly firm groin after explaining myself to a Chilean border guard in Español. I’m pretty sure his nod said ‘I understand’ not ‘please stop trying to speak Spanish you complete fuckwit’.

But, for the most part, I learn ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘sorry’, then let the locals take up the slack. It ain’t right. I know it ain’t. And acknowledgement is the first of many steps on the long road to recovery.

Sea Lions Galapagos
Sometimes the locals just aren’t that chatty. And that’s OK too.

So, with DuoLingo downloaded, I’m gunna make myself comfortable in this motorbike sidecar that is inexplicably in my apartment. I’m gunna put what I’ve labelled the leather learning helmet on. And I’m gunna learn a little bit more of the local language, and subsequently a little more of the people that speak it. Because language opens doors, fosters understanding, and helps you to realise ‘well gee fuckin’ whiz – these people aren’t all that different to me.’

Who knows, enough Hungarian and I could end up whipping a local tiger onto a seat with nothing more than my gob. It’s good to have goals.

Updates to come.


[Fish in Hungarian. Boom.]


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