How even after learning 10 languages I can still face the same challenges traveling as a monolingual!

by | May 20, 2014 | English, Travel

I recently flew to eastern Hungary planning to spend the night in Debrecen before going to visit the Transcarpathian region in western Ukraine.

While I normally don’t face too many problems with communication while traveling in Europe thanks to the languages I speak, I don’t speak any Hungarian and as Hungarian is so different from the other languages in the region, I cannot even guess any of the words.

So when in Hungary, I am completely dependent on the locals understanding one of my languages.

Once I have arrived, my friend from Debrecen, Máté, tells me: “Sorry, dude. I have to study for my final law exams but since you are heading to Ukraine, you should definitely stop in Nyíregyháza. There is a party called FŐHE going on there. Lots of popular Hungarian artists will be playing. You’ll have fun!” And with that I head off the following morning to Nyíregyháza, population 120,000, 70 kms from the Ukrainian border.

Debrecen Hungary

Debrecen, Hungary

Arriving at the train station in Nyíregyháza, I go to the international departures cashier to buy my ticket to Uzhhorod for the following day. “English? Deutsch? Русский язык? Limba româna?”, I ask. The lady shakes her head negatively. Ok. This should not be too difficult to explain. “Uzhgorod. Tomorrow. 10 am.” I say holding up my two hands open to show the number 10. Again the woman shakes her head from side to side saying something in Hungarian.

I look around at the people behind me in the queue. “English? Deutsch? Русский язык? Limba româna?” I inquire. They all shake their head in the same manner as the woman behind the counter. I try again at the cashier. “Uzhgorod?” This doesn’t look good. She is not giving me a ticket and is becoming more agitated with me. The pace and tone of her Hungarian is faster and sterner. A guy behind me in the queue blurts out something like “informatsja” pointing towards an office across the concourse with the ubiquitous ‘i’ icon.

Train station Timetable Nyíregyháza

Train station in Nyíregyháza

Pushing my suitcase into the information office, I start the process again. “English? Deutsch? Русский язык? Limba româna?” No luck but at least this lady smiles and seems a lot more receptive than her colleague at the international departures cashier. “Uzhgorod?” She looks blankly at me. “Ungvár?” I try, knowing this is the name of the city in Hungarian. Again, no recognition of my destination.

“How does a tourist ever manage to buy a ticket in this station?” I ask myself. It’s a four-border region with health spas. I cannot be that unusual as a non-Hungarian speaking tourist. I intimate to the lady that I want to use her keyboard. I open GoogleMaps on her screen and type in “Uzhhorod”. She goes “Ah!” after seeing where the city is located and points to a Hungarian border town, Záhony and shakes her head while pointing to Uzhhorod. I guess I am only getting a ticket to the border.

She writes down the timetable for getting to Uzhhorod and I bring the piece of paper back to the original cashier and say “Záhony” and voilà! I have a ticket to the border for the following morning.

FŐHE Festival, Nyíregyháza

FŐHE Festival, Nyíregyháza

Later that evening, I arrive at the FŐHE party and join the queue to buy an entrance ticket. Immediately four girls join the queue behind me. One of them asks me something in Hungarian … I smile … what else can I do? She leans in close to me, grasping my hand, hazel eyes sparkling with inebriation all the time ranting excitedly in Hungarian while her girlfriends watch on giggling.

For the evening, I meander through on all Hungarian night out. Order my drinks with Tarzan-like grunts and hand gestures, dance to Hungarian hip hop and enjoy the bewilderment in revelers’ faces as they realize that I am not actually Hungarian all the time imbibed by the sound of a language that I understand absolutely nothing in.

The following morning, I awake at my hotel, Nyilas Fogadó, by the lake at Sóstóhegy. I chat in a mixture of English and Russian with Iván at reception (who is originally from Mukacheve in Ukraine). Reflecting on my 24 hours in Nyíregyháza, Ivan asks me: “So Conor, what is your conclusion from your experience here?” “Hmm”, I ponder … Ivan answers for me: “Obviously you have got to learn Hungarian as well, man!” We burst out laughing. Sure, a polyglot’s journey is never complete no matter how far and with how many languages I travel with.

Lake Sóstóhegy

Lake at Sóstóhegy

So in Nyíregyháza, I was unfamiliarly faced with not being able to converse with locals. So how did that affect my trip? Well, I still bought my train ticket, found ways of directing taxi drivers, ordering food and in fact, everything that I really needed to do so mission accomplished. Having the confidence to relax and persistence to figure out some way of communicating whatever it is that I need is a skill that I’ve acquired over the years of traveling even where I don’t speak the language.

Oh! And by the way, the girl in the queue at Föhe … well, I do understand one useful word in Hungarian, at least … “puszi” … Happy traveling! 😉

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