Strangers on a train: where words don’t work

Over 25 years ago I was unexpectedly thrown into a travel situation where nobody spoke English. Furthermore, nobody spoke a Latin based language, so my semi-fluent Spanish and any verbal communications were out. For four long days, in order to eat, find the bathroom, know when to get back on the train, do “anything”, I had to find alternate means of communication. I was essentially left to the same devices the Phonecians used when they encountered Etruscians for the first time. It was both an elevating and humbling experience.

But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much.

I’ve been in the translation industry going on 12 years now. Every day SMEs and linguists focus on how to get just the right meaning to transform complex, technical sentences into language that the target audience will grasp, via remote communications. But how do you communicate when neither party has a common language, or any means of verbal communication? For years there have been debates about developing a second “icon/image” based language (think airline safety card.) McDonald’s even created a visual “language” of icons to express nutritional ingredients on packaging worldwide. But overall, little progress has been made in establishing a “standard” set of icons for daily use.

Ironically, left to my own devices, I found out that an astonishing amount of communication can take place with no words, just gestures, images, and perhaps a heart felt connection with a “stranger on a train.”

It was Spring of 1982 and I had just finished a series of cruises across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and through the more visited Greek Isles. We were in the midst of a severe recession, I had accumulated 5 weeks of “comp” time and had decided to use it all at once. I had wanted to complete the trip with a visit to friends in the UK and thought “wouldn’t it be fun” to take a train from Athens to Belgium, and then take the ferry to England?

My travel agent had reserved a “first class” compartment on a Greek/Yugloslav train (with dining car) that wouldn’t require a transfer until Munich. Being 1982, this meant going through several Communist countries, including the region that erupted into unimaginable violence after the break up of Yugoslavia. As a result, western tourists were not the norm, and nobody, that is nobody, spoke a Latin-based tongue!  The first class compartment proved to be a cubby hole with bunk beds. Not only was there no dining car, there wasn’t even a food vendor (e.g. somebody in a babushka peddling crackers from a basket) on the train. I soon discovered that I was probably the only person on board without provisions. I had one Greek candy bar to start the trip with.

Being the May day holiday there were about 50 Greek soldiers on board, evidently on some sort of leave. Although none of them spoke a word of English, they were intrigued with the novelty of an American, and shared wine, grapes and cheese. Being a credible artist, I was able to draw a map of the USA, delineate California and draw a bridge for San Franciso. “Oh, Hollywood!” one of them exclaimed. The only English I was to hear for 3 days.

I did have Greek currency, and using hand gestures, pointing at numerals on my watch, was able to decipher how many minutes we would stay at each train station. While sharing the food I’d bought with some of the soldiers, we tried to “explain” to one another what our professional backgrounds were. One young sergeant pantomimed plowing a field (farmer), another was a good enough actor to make make it clear that he had driven a taxi. I was a trainer and sales support person for digital typesetters. Impossible to communicate? Not really … I drew a picture of moveable, metal type (which they all understood) and then drew arrows, putting the type on a computer screen with a keyboard. One young man pretended to type and pointed at the headline of his Greek newspaper. They “got it.”

This was turning out to be too easy.

That trip was memorable for many reasons. Floating through what is now Bosnia / Herzagovia, the passing country side was like a trip back in time. Peasants were dressed in traditional garb; if it weren’t for an occasional automobile, it could have been 1860. Farm women were slaughtering pigs. The apple blossoms were in bloom. It was some of the most heart-achingly beautiful landscape I have seen, before or since.

Ironically, I should have felt lonely and isolated, being the only one who spoke English. But for the next 4 days I made many friends who were determined to draw my attention to points of interest … all without words. As we crossed on bridge, an older man (Slovakian, I think) make gestures to indicate that the bridge had been blown up. Then he drew a swastika and pointed at himself, pushing on the plunger. He wanted me to know that he had been in the resistance and had helped end the war one bridge at a time. I pretended to pin a medal on his breast, and he loved it.

Several soldiers pulled out photos of wives or sweet hearts, and sometimes even used pocket calendars to indicate when an impending marriage was coming. (Gestures showed invisible rings being exchanged.) I gestured throwing rice, which drew blank stares. Oh well, sometimes you do need words when cultural habits vary.

At the end of 4 days, I hadn’t learned a word of Greek / Croatian / Slovakian or Rumanian, and my fellow passengers certainly hadn’t learned a word of English. But in that bubble of time, in the microcosm of that train, we had learned a great deal about one another and had communicated on the most human level I had experienced in my young adult life.

When the time came to change trains in Germany, and we had to part our ways, we said our good byes. One young soldier (the taxi driver who was to get married) took my hand, placed it on his heart, and pointed at me, at him, to indicated that we were friends. And then he used his fingers to indicate “walking” and then pointed up, to “God.” In an instant, I realized that he was telling me to “go with God.” I wasn’t embarassed in the slightest by his kiss on both cheeks. I was humbled and honored. I remember giving him something as a token of friendship. It may have been a keychain, or a trade show chatschka … it may have been worth about 50 cents, but it was American, and it meant something to him. (Does he still have it today?)

Walking towards my next train, I appreciated how important language is. But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much. Not when we are one-on-one with a “stranger on a train.”