Being abroad is always an adjustment. No matter how cabin feverish you get at home, looking forward all year to getting out and stretching your legs, it’s always hard to adjust to the language, the customs, and the different culture.
We’re, at the moment, in Macedonia. Specifically in Skopje. This is the first time I’ve been to a country outside of the typical Western Culture block of the US and Europe, aside from Costa Rica (where I had family, and the familiarity of the language and wider latin culture). I honestly never expected to visit a balkan country, let alone Macedonia, but here we are on business, spending two weeks with some of the loveliest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, experiencing a fascinatingly complex society.
It’s hard, though. We’re traveling for two months, mostly in Germany visiting Jess’s family, with two weeks here, and some weekend trips around the area. For me, someone who’s entire identity, in every single way, is centered on communication, it’s beyond hard to not be able to communicate either with language or even with body language and cues. Talk about growth opportunity.
An example. As is commonly known, everyone outside of the USA agrees that USA residents are entirely too smiley. I’m serious. If you come to Germany, walk down the street and smile wide in greeting at any passing stranger, you’ll get a look of mute, neutral confusion because it would be inefficient to produce more emotion for a nutty person going around smiling at everyone.
Here in Skopje, though, you might also get more than a little bit of a frown (especially when you look as far outside of their norm, gender-wise, as I do). They’re suspicious, wondering what the high heck is wrong with you, until they figure out you’re one of those smiley Americans. Small detail, but let me tell you, it’s hard to not be able to make that tiny little connection with people. Together with other cultural disconnections, it can feel pretty isolating, which is claustrophobic.
But as my lovely wife has reminded me, it’s a matter of learning a new way to communicate, and letting yourself grow, no matter how difficult that is. She said ‘think of yourself like a child you doesn’t know how to talk yet. You’re going to go, at first, and get frustrated, and throw a tantrum to try and get what you want. Until you realize that this doesn’t work, and you give that anger up and figure out how to communicate effectively.’ Considering she’s learned, fluently, 5 languages, she’d know.
Last night, when we were talking about this, I had the unplanned chance to see this, and experience this, in action. The word for ‘thank you’ that we learned at first is Fala. And for our first week, since that’s really the only word we know, and we’re polite people, we said it like a broken record. Until we learned that this is the informal equivalent of ‘thanks, yo’ and moderately inappropriate in company with strangers. Which explains the looks we got when we said it, really. Instead, the appropriate and more formal word is ‘Blagodaram.’ We went for dinner and got a waitress who didn’t speak much English, and seemed pretty frustrated (boy can I relate to that). So at one point, I went to thank her, and stopped myself and got excited because I remembered the right word for once. And promptly said it totally wrong. (the ‘d’ and the ‘g’ seem to want to swap in my brain.) We went back and forth a couple times, with her grinning wider and wider, eventually chuckling at my linguistic mishap, until I got it right. By the end she was totally amused by me, the clumsy, earnest American. And Jess just grinned at me, having unexpectedly made her point perfectly.
That’s the thing. If there’s one thing I’ve had reinforced through traveling, it’s that there’s a big, BIG difference between people in a pack, and people one on one. Between people who see you passing on the street, and people you get a chance to actually talk to. You’d expect, unfortunately, I think, for people in certain countries to have more that a small problem with a gender variant, bohemian, odd duck like me. Especially when said person is walking down the street hand in hand with her lovely, femme, defiantly annoyed wife. We’re pretty obvious when together, y’know? And it’s true, they stare, and a lot of those stares are offended, and not happy.
But one on one. Man. One on one, people are amazing. And flexible. And open. And incredibly accepting. Yeah, that’s not always true, I’m not naive. But I’ve found my fortunately small cynical streak proven wrong more often that it’s been proven right, and that keeps me going. The people of this complicated society are radically strong, creative, and cussedly positive. At least as far as I’ve found.
Until next time, when we re-connect with Germany, dip our toes into Prague, and hopefully skip up north to Stockholm. Cheers!