As I listened to the server at the cafe talk, my jaw started to drop. Her story went something like this:
“I was utterly gobsmacked when I learned I needed extra 4×2’s to frame out the hob before I could even begin the splashback at the beach bach. I grabbed my jumper and slipped on my jandals because even though it is summer there was a wicked southerly. I was gutted to find the car park closed at Mitre 10 Mega so I went to the nearest chip shop, sat on the bonnet, and called it brekkie.”
The kids stared blankly, placed their order tentatively, and when we were alone again asked if I had any idea what was just conveyed. We sat quietly for a while as images flashed through our minds of moments over the past few years when we thought if we only knew the language, communication would be easier.
We talked about trying to buy produce at the farmer’s market in Ljubljana, Slovenia, or when the resort manager in Calais, France was impatient with our inability to discuss our bill in French.
We talked about that moment in Italy, after months in the Italian Public Schools when our command of the language shifted and our friendships deepened.
We talked about interactions in many countries where our meaningful connections had nothing to do with verbal languages, like the day we spent in a knife makers workshop in the Molise Region of Italy.
We talked about the afternoon with the marble artist in Tuscany when actions spoke louder than words.
Something, however, about not understanding English caught us completely off guard …
Before our meal at the cafe was over, we knew that brekkie was breakfast, beach bach is a beach house, a jumper is a sweater, and jandals are flip flops. Our server Kim, also gave the kids free “candy floss” or cotton candy, when we saw her working at a neighborhood festival. She couldn’t wait to teach us a new word! To which we replied, “Ta mate” which means thank you, friend. She beamed knowing we were well on our way.
What we realized is that even speaking the same language doesn’t guarantee comprehension. A language is a remarkable tool but observation, compassion, hand signals and a sense of humor are equally valuable ineffective communication.
There is a humility we feel in foreign language cultures that we didn’t feel in New Zealand until that magical moment. Up to that point in the cafe, we were taking the ease of an “English Speaking Country” for granted. We are now ready and open to understanding even our own language in a new way, and that kind of vulnerability inspires patience in others to show us the way.
(Oh and, The Urban Dictionary suggests that “sweet as” is the second most common phrase in New Zealand after “awesome”. Said when something is rather good instead of just “good” or “OK”. Often followed by “bro”.)
Today’s Tweetable: Speaking the same language doesn’t guarantee comprehension.