It has thrown me slightly, being in a different country again after becoming quite familiar with day-to-day life in Estonia. Latvia, although just next door, is remarkably different. I thought that the language would be something similar, in the way that I can always guess bits of Spanish, German and the like from my knowledge of French, but they seem to be poles apart, and I am out of my comfort zone.
In Tallinn, I’ve become comfortable with words and phrases that I see on signposts and hear spoken around me everyday. I know when a sign in a shop window is saying that it’s closed on Monday; I know when the departure board at the bus station is telling me that my bus is running late; I know when the cashier is asking me if I have a store loyalty card; I know how to ask for a bigger bag or a book of tram tickets, and how to say hello, please, thank you, goodbye, excuse me, sorry… the sorts of things you need in order to get by.
I hadn’t really thought about any of this, or realised how comfortable I’d become, until I arrived in Riga and went up to the hatch where I’d been informed I could buy tram tickets at the bus station. Had I thought about it, I could have managed “hello”, having learned “labdien” the other week as part of my 101 Things project. However, I didn’t think anything other than “Ooops, “tere” isn’t the right word, here!”, and instead I smiled blankly at the woman. “Do you speak English?” I asked, hopefully. “No,” she said, bluntly.
And there I was, back in any one of a number of unfamiliar destinations last summer. I’d forgotten what it was like. And it is really awful to not at least be able to say “thank you” in a shop – I always feel incredibly rude if I take my purchases and my change and just walk away. I try to compensate by smiling in what I hope is a grateful manner, but which I suspect is actually quite creepy and makes me look like an escaped lunatic. I felt especially bad about the woman on the tram who, upon seeing me trying to figure out how to stamp my ticket, kindly directed me to a different machine (I was probably trying to stamp my ticket using the emergency stop button or something). She deserved a heartfelt “thank you!”: all she got was a frantic nod.
The most important one of all, however – and you can count this as a Top Travel Tip! – is to make yourself familiar with the words for Push and Pull in the language of the country you’re visiting. Because quite honestly, in terms of making yourself look like an utter idiot, there is nothing worse than walking into a door.
This is one that for some reason will never, ever stick with me, in any language other than English. No matter how many times I run into doors, fully expecting them to push open, I never learn. It doesn’t matter how many times I mutter the respective words over and over again as I walk hurriedly away from the offending door, red in the face and rubbing my bruised shoulder – by the time I next encounter a door I have completely forgotten which way round they are. And I always, always pick the wrong one, resulting in the embarrassing thud as my shoulder hits the Pull door, or the loud clatter as I try to wrench open the Push door and it refuses to be wrenched.
It ain’t easy.