I think that the biggest difficulty while traveling is not knowing the native tounge of every country I visit. I was able to make my way through Germany with my five years of Deutsch klasse on my back. I also picked up some simple Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian to help me navigate these countries at the bare minimum. Everyday there are new words to learn, and it has become somewhat of a fun game. Trying to guess what signs, menus, and products say is a daily task that has become seamingly easier.
The one thing I can’t seem to get a grasp on is the conversation strangers make with me. Whether it’s the old woman on the streets of Paris or the guy in the train station of Rotterdam, having someone come up to me and babble on about something that sounds like nonsense is intimidating. Especially when it gets aggressive. I have only been faced with one scary situation in Europe, and one was enough.
The day Rylee (my travel buddy!) and I left France to head to Barcelona, we had about an hour to sit and wait in the train station. From the very second we got to this station we both had a weird feeling about it. We couldn’t find a place to sit that felt comfortable and out of the way. Everywhere we went I got the feeling that we shouldn’t be there. When we finally found a section of ten seats that cleared out, we lugged our backpacks and bodies over to the bench and sat down. Happy with our seat situation we pulled out our lunches and began to munch and chat away. About fifteen minutes after sitting down a woman came and joined us. With all of the big bags she was carrying she took up five seats across from us and then stood there with her back facing us. I thought it was odd that she would use all the seats for her stuff and not make room for herself, but I ignored it and continued on with my carrot salad. It wasn’t until five minutes later that I realized that the woman across from us had sat down and had now proceeded to stare at us. Staring is something I find common in a lot of European cities. Not a rude or judgmental type of stare, but a curious and harmless stare. Except this woman’s stare was not harmless. Her eyes were like knifes, sharp and narrow. They pierced right through me, it felt as if she was sending needles into my skin and out the other side. I have been through high school, I know this judgemental stare. So doing the natural thing I pretended to not see her, and just kept on doing what I was doing. She didn’t stop. She just kept looking at us with her hollow eyes. Her mouth opened and out poured lightening speed French. Rylee conversed with her in French, explaining how we don’t speak the language and asking if she spoke any English. This just seemed to enrage her more. Empathetically apologizing we sat there with fear growing in the air. Just then two children who looked to be about nine and thirteen came over and stood near the woman. She continued to ramble on to them, her voice growing louder. The kids looked at the woman, then looked at us, then back at the woman. Nothing was said as they moved her many bags and sat down next to her. The glair didn’t stop and now she was resting her chin on her knee gazing like a panther sneaking up on its pray. As the room got hotter and the tension rose no one did anything. The bystander effect, psychologically people are less likely to intervene in stressful situations when more people are also watching, and people were definitely watching. Now she was yelling and waving her hands up in the air as if to ward us off. She pulled out her money pouch and handed a €20 bill to the children, waving them away. My heart was racing and if it wasn’t for the police man eyeing her at the other end of the station I might have gone into panic mode. Just then like an angel of light in a dark forest our friend Jennifer had appeared. She had dropped us off at the train station, and happened to come back to use the restroom.
There was no understanding this woman’s chopped up French. There was no communicating or mediating with her. There was only the option to flee the situation. I will never know what it was about Rylee and I that made this woman so upset, but at least there was a lesson to learn and now a story to tell.