Language (Mis)Adventures while Traveling

Before traveling to Wroclaw, Poland I was warned about the language barrier.  Younger people would be able to speak English along with their native Polish, but the older generation would speak Polish and Russian, although they would deny being able to speak Russian unless absolutely necessary.  I was told it was a cultural thing stretching back to Soviet rule.  Mostly though, I was told not to worry about it.  So I didn’t. When doing my travel planning, I didn’t think to bring a phrase book.

Wroclaw riverside

But then I suddenly found myself in a train station, late, without a ticket, and no idea where to go.  And I started to worry.  I do not speak Polish. And I do not speak Russian.  And this was causing a huge problem in my ability to communicate.  I had intended to head out to a town called Rogoźnica to visit an old concentration camp called Gross-Rosen (an amazingly somber and impressive experience by the way and one that I can not say enough about).

I had identified the time I needed to be at the train station and taken care to write everything down so I wouldn’t forget. And away I went to the train station.  What I had not taken care to do was figure out how long it would take me to walk to the train station. I made it though with a bit of time to spare and was pleased to see plenty of ticket windows open and available. I chose the window with the youngest looking employee in hopes of getting someone who spoke English. I did not.

Wroclaw railway station

I began pointing at my piece of paper, attempting to explain the time and place that I wanted to go.  To no avail.  Tens of minutes passed in hopes of finding a ticket to where I needed to be.  Finally, with the help of a second woman, I managed to purchase a ticket.  They had written down for me the platform I was to leave from and the time.  Away I went, harried, but relatively pleased to have a ticket in hand.

As I sprinted to the platform, I noticed something strange.  The time at the platform didn’t match the time on my ticket.  The time on the next platform over did.  I took my chances and went to my original platform.  I found a conductor.  He did not speak English.  I pointed to my ticket, to the train and did the classic shoulder shrug as if to say, is this right? His response? Nyet. I don’t speak Russian or Polish, but I knew what that meant.  So I turned and sprinted for the other train only to watch it pull away.

This time I managed to find a customer service desk.  And the employee there spoke flawless English.  As I kicked myself for not trying the customer service desk first, I was told that the next train didn’t leave for several hours.  My only option was a taxi.

And so, a very long taxi-drive later, and I finally arrived at my destination.  An unused train ticket in hand, and a newfound respect for the language barrier.

When thinking of European destinations, do you consider the language barrier? And have you had any horror stories with your lack of language skills?

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About Marcus Cederstrom

I was born in Sweden and moved to the US just before my 6th birthday. I grew up in the United States eventually graduating from the University of Oregon. After graduation and about 17 years in the US I made the decision to move back to Sweden. I have been living in Stockholm since the summer of 2007. Since graduation I have traveled throughout eastern Australia as well as in Sweden and Europe.