I try not to be the American jerk who shows up to another country and doesn’t bother to learn a spec of their language. So when I took my most recent international birthday adventure, I had ambitious plans to brush up on the local lingo. The trouble was my birthday is in April, always following my busiest month as a speaker: March. (I’ll spare my rant about how I think women speakers should matter the other 11 months of the year, too.)
So my flash cards, carefully prepared with words and phrases I’ve deemed essential to a traveler – a list I, in fact, compiled in a hotel room in Ouro Preto, Brazil – became a source of frustration and imminent failure.
I was to be in 3 countries over 8 days and that was a LOT of words. I gave up. I decided I’d have to just get there and wing it.
In Budapest, my first destination, I was seeking a snack before the opera, and I found a cute little pastry shop. A pretty young dark-haired woman was kind enough to speak English with me and as I ended the transaction, I asked her how to say “thank you” in Magyar (Hungarian).
It took me a bit of practice to pronounce it almost correctly, which is usually the best I can do. Though I’m a professional speaker, I remain in my soul a writer, and I’m more comfortable and skilled with reading and writing words than speaking them.
I was in Budapest just overnight, and I used the heck out of that one word while I was there. I didn’t want to be the arrogant American who would only speak English.
And it turns out, “thank you” is most meaningful, sincere, and pointed when you say it in someone’s own language.
I saw 6 operas during this European trip. The second one, attended in Budapest, was not at their State Opera House in the city center, but was at the Erkel Theatre, tucked away in the Jewish quarter. It was the only one that didn’t have English subtitles for me to follow along. It was Strauss’ The Gypsy Baron, which I might have stood a chance at, as I know a little German, but this was an adaptation performed in Magyar, so I understood very little of what was happening in the story.
I had to settle for the spectacle of it, and it wasn’t settling at all. The costumes, set, singing, and especially the dancing were of a magnificence unmatched by any performance I’d ever attended. While I didn’t understand the words, I understood all the art of the show, and I loved it.
There was one word spoken by a regal character during the performance that I did understand. Observing the art created on her character’s behalf, she spoke, “Köszönöm.” I felt the same.
Next I went to Prague, then Kraków, and again, I made sure I knew that one thing in their language: děkuji, dziękuję ci. Because at the Erkel Theatre, I realized that in all my travels, that is the one word or phrase I learn. Thank you. One would think I’d learn to say “hello,” first. But I couldn’t recall “hello” in Khmer. I remembered “arkoun.” I remembered “obrigada” in Portuguese. And everyone knows “danke schön.” At the Erkel Theatre, I realized I was on to something…. In Prague, I strolled through the maze of whimsical medieval architecture, transfixed by the magic of it, and I did the same a few days later in Kraków. I wasn’t just wandering around these cities saying “hello” to the places. With my toes on the cobbles and my eyes scanning the towering bright, twirling facades, I was brimming with gratitude.
The phrase that kept running through my mind at the Erkel Theatre, as I thought how strange I never learned to say “hello” in these languages, was “gratitude is greater than greeting.”
That’s how I spent my time in my whirlwind, 3-city European opera tour. I didn’t bother with a simple “hello.” I walked and talked and lived “thank you,” as the correct language. And I try to carry the sentiment still, as my greatest souvenir from my 37th birthday trip: Gratitude is greater than greeting.