language

I’m Speaking German in Mexico

I’ve spoken more German in the past week in Mexico than I have in the past seven years.

It started at the campsite in Tulum. Juan’s daughter lives in Vienna, so upon hearing that I’d studied German and have a desire to live in Vienna he switched our conversation into German. I followed suit and we carried on in a Spangermenglish mixture for the rest of my stay there. Also in Tulum, Juan introduced me to his friends who were Mexican and Swiss, so German came back into play. Then on my city tour of Merida the tour guide in training found out I’d learned German and, to my surprise, switched to talking to me in German. So again I carried on with him in German.

I haven’t used my German in years. Last year I was shy to admit that I even used to speak it, knowing that I had no confidence whatsoever in my abilities anymore. So why am I using it now in Mexico? I still lack confidence and don’t speak it with Germans I meet, but something about speaking it with other people whose first language is not German is encouraging me. I also think that since I’m attempting to pick up and use Spanish, the language part of my brain is very active right now. And in my attempt to speak Spanish, I often end up recalling a German word instead of the Spanish word. Hopefully this means that if I do end up in a German-speaking nation, I will be able to regain my faded language skills fairly quickly.

But if you had told me before I left that Mexico would make me speak German again I would have thought you were crazy.

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Final Thoughts on Japan

Japan is a fascinating country. I went curiously, having always had a desire to see what it was like there, but also unexpectedly. Along with the fact that I didn’t know I was going to be there until a month before I went, all I knew once I arrived was that I’d be there for at least two weeks with Matt, but I had no idea what we’d see or where we’d go. I ended up staying for a month and seeing more than just the normal Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka highlight reel. I can only thank Matt for convincing me to go to that wonderful place. Looking back now, Japan has become one of my favorite countries of the trip.

When people ask me what I thought of Japan I describe it as so forward and so backward at the same time, 2080 and 1880 living simultaneously. Parts of the country are so modern, from 9-story glowing signs adorning the sides of glass towers to the most time-accurate trains running up to 200 mph. These parts live in harmony next to historic buildings and a rich cultural history and appreciation that permeates the entire experience of being there. People dressed in traditional clothes wander past a temple into a covered shopping arcade, literally crossing the boundaries of time. At times I was surprised by some of the cultural differences, like the inequality of gender when I was at an after-work bar surrounded by only men in suits. And then there’s the overall quirkiness of Japan, like the obsession with video game centers and toy stores.

The people are incredible, even though most don’t speak English. Despite the language barrier they still went out of their way in friendless and helpfulness, like the woman from our ryokan who drove us to and made sure we got on the right bus or the woman at my hostel in Fukuoka who made fresh miso soup and onigiri every morning for all the guests staying there, even though she was a guest herself.

The language was also interesting. Remember that scene in Lost in Translation where the commercial director says 30 seconds worth of Japanese and the translator says, “He said ‘turn to camera'” and Bill Murray responds, “That’s all he said?” It’s so true. Every time I walked into a restaurant or out everyone there said a long string of Japanese that I think was just “hi how many people” upon entering and “thank you bye” when leaving. And it wasn’t until my last night that someone finally explained to me the difference between “arigatou ” and “arigatou gozaimasu,” thank you and the formal version of thank you that I should have been saying all along. They love to throw “gozaimasu” around attached to other phrases too.

Unfortunately Japan is not really a backpacker-friendly country, especially during cherry blossom season. If I do return one day I’ll make sure to plan ahead: get a train pass and book accommodation. It did work out in the end, but it would have saved us from a lot of stress to have had a plan. For this reason I’d probably avoid it on another low-budget-spontaneous-type trip.

Bus rides though were a breath of fresh air. After my frustration traveling around the rest of Asia, having a reliable timetable and functioning bus stations was a relief. This was my main form of transportation around Japan and honestly pretty pleasant, and much more affordable than the train. Plus the cleanest rest stops I’ve ever been in and, of course, genial, helpful drivers.

The food is also probably my favorite on the trip. Vietnam would be tied, and definitely wins in the affordability category, but the sheer variety of Japanese food – donburi, sushi, tempura, noodles, tonkatsu, onigiri, hot pot, skewers – and the fact that all of it is delicious tips the win in Japan’s direction. It also wins worst dish of my trip for the intestine yakitori. I would even eat tarantula again if I had to pick between that and intestine.

All of this combined with the beauty of the country and the energy of the cities hopefully conveys why I found Japan to be not simply great but also captivating. I definitely will return one day.

When Did I Learn How to Say “Petrified Lava” in Spanish?

Our Salt Flat tour guide, Victor, only spoke Spanish. We luckily had Sylvia with us, a native Bolivian who was fluent in both Spanish and English, but it was still Sylvia’s vacation so we couldn’t expect her to serve as our translator the whole time. So I tried to listen to and pick up on as much as I could from what Victor told us.

I understood more than I even knew was possible. Suddenly I was translating to other people in my group. “We’re at over 3500 m elevation right now. The volcano over there is still active, and the rocks in front of us are formed from petrified lava.” Where the hell did that come from? I only took Spanish in 7th and 8th grade and we did not learn these words.

As I continue to travel around Spanish speaking countries, I’m finding that I’m able to understand quite a bit more than I expected. I have a few theories on why this is. For starters, somewhere in the recesses of my mind the little Spanish that I learned when I was a teenager is still there. That’s a fairly young age to learn a new language so things stuck easier then. And now this has formed a base for picking up more words.

More so, I think having experience with a second language in general has helped. Not that knowing German is actually useful in South America, but I have figured out how to pick up the gist of what someone is saying by knowing some words and contextual clues. Although sometimes I do throw in German words when I’m attempting to speak Spanish. I think my brain defaults to “not English” and chooses the next language it knows.

I also try to speak it whenever I can, even if it is just a few words awkwardly strung together. I would rather try to converse in Spanish than just be another monolingual American. I think because I don’t really know Spanish I am able to throw caution to the wind and try to find any words and gestures I can to convey what I am trying to say. Unlike German, which I’m supposed to know well so I get too self-conscious to speak it.

This is just a theory, but I think it all combined into me becoming a sort of translator on a few occasions. Starting with the Salt Flat tour, when 4 out of 6 of us didn’t understand any Spanish, and continuing on to future cities with other English speakers.

I do still wish I knew more Spanish and had worked on it more before and during my time in South America, but at the very least I feel like I can get around now. It’s kind of fascinating to think about what the mind can pick up – like the three different kinds of flamingos in Bolivia and how to tell them apart.