At the hotel, Kevin sits alone at the dinner table for six. He’s from Scotland and he’s never been to São Tomé before. We don’t know this, though, when we first sit down with him- four of us to fill the table up better. He is quiet, he eats quickly but at the same time he eats slowly and spreads his food around and studies it. He doesn’t look up.
The three Portuguese guys and I are talking about something, anything, I don’t remember what we’re talking about. One of the waiters comes and asks us if the last seat is taken. We don’t understand him (even though he is speaking Portuguese). He repeats himself, this time in English. Kevin responds. “No,” he says.
Time to work my charm.
Of course I love the fact that being bilingual exposes me to other cultures. It allows me to get inside other people’s worlds, to better understand them, to empathize with them. Yet something that I love almost as much as that is the ability to serve as a global connector with people that don’t speak each other’s languages. Sometimes when I am by myself, I become nervous about speaking Portuguese, even though I speak just fine. If I’m surrounded by a group of people who all speak fluent Portuguese I can get a little nervous- “what if they don’t understand me?” and “what if I pronounce something wrong?” cloud my conception of my own language ability. But when I’m surrounded by Portuguese people as well as people who don’t speak Portuguese, it’s when my language skills really light up. Suddenly I feel confident and fluent. I can express complex ideas rather easily.
Five minutes go by and I realize that if no one speaks up for this man then no one will. Perhaps it was only my assumption that my Portuguese friends spoke English and chose not to talk to him- it turns out that they don’t speak a word. “You speak English?” I say to the man catty corner to me. He looks up and smiles. “Yes,” he says.
“Where are you from?”
“What is your name?”
And that’s about as far as I get in knowing Kevin, but perhaps as far as I need to go. Instantly, we have something in common that no one else at the table has- a mother tongue- and in foreign countries, that works wonders. Of course, Kevin and I spend a solid 30 seconds trying to figure out what Kevin does for a living, and when I finally say “oh, ok, sorry, I understand now,” I actually don’t (a mother tongue, but not a mother pronunciation, I suppose). So I have no idea what Kevin is doing in São Tomé but I do know he’ll be off-shore a lot of the time, that he doesn’t have to speak Portuguese to do the job and that it’s his first time in São Tomé but he has been to Equatorial Guinea before. That’s a good start, right?
I bring up this situation today because you think that when you travel, you will always be the foreigner- that you will always be the person finding a new friend to tag along with, to learn from. But sometimes, even when you’re not at home, you are that new friend. Sometimes you bring enough of a taste of home for people to trust you, even when you don’t know anything about each other. I realized that Kevin was like me- on his own to São Tomé. I don’t know how he showed up at the hotel because I don’t remember much English being spoken at the airport. But he got there. I realized that, if I didn’t speak Portuguese, I would have been just like Kevin- a little bit lost, a little bit uncomfortable, and feeling particularly alone.
He left early, saying “nice to meet you” and breaking free as quickly as possible to return to his solidarity. About 20 minutes later I headed back up to my room in the elevator. Deep in the back corner, he was inside. I greeted him and he started to exit the elevator as I got in. “Kevin, don’t you have a few floors left?” I asked him as he was walking out, noticing that the number “4” was lit up on the panel.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, going back in.
When we reached the second floor, I started to leave. He followed behind me. “Two more floors to go, buddy,” I said to him, laughing.
“Oh yeah,” he said, and started to laugh, too. He stepped back in and the elevator doors closed.