English translation: “Say cheese.”

That was the context, anyway, one afternoon last week as I stood near the waterfront, smiling and waiting for the woman with the camera to snap the shutter.

I was in Barcelona, Spain, at the Mediterranean port where Christopher Columbus launched his journey to the new world. The location was both scenic and historic, and many of the people in the area were tourists taking pictures. I saw a young couple who were taking turns taking photos of each other, with different views in the backdrop. I went up to them and asked – as I often do in situations like this – if they’d like me to take a photo of both of them together. They nodded enthusiastically and handed me their camera, and I took several shots. When I handed their camera back to them, the woman offered to take a photo of me and the friend I was with.

I gave her my camera, and as she held it up and counted to three in French, it was the first indication I had of what their native language was, and what country they were from.

“Merci beaucoup!” I said as the woman returned my camera. She smiled and called out, “Au revoir” as she and her husband waved goodbye and walked off.

This was only the second time in my life that I’ve been to Europe, and one of the joys of the trip for me was listening to the many different languages and accents I heard wherever we went. I know a few words and phrases in different languages, but don’t consider myself fluent in anything but English. Still, I was surprised to discover I knew more than I thought I did.

“Gracias,” was about all the Spanish I really needed to know, and when a family from the Netherlands asked me – in English – if I would take their photo, I asked them how to count to three in their native language. Then I did as the woman at the waterfront had done that afternoon, only in Dutch instead of French.

Later on, I was checking my email in the lobby of our hotel – the only place where we could get an internet connection – and I heard someone ask the person sitting next to me what country he was from. When he answered, “Poland,” I looked up and said, “Jak sie masz.” He looked at me in surprise, then smiled and said, “Dobrze.”

My grandparents were Polish, and even though they always spoke to us in English, I grew up knowing how to say “How are you?” “Fine, thank you,” and a few other phrases in Polish.

“Dobranoc,” – Good night – I said to the man a few minutes later, when he got up to leave. “Dobranoc,” he answered, smiling as he left.

I realized then that I had spoken in five different languages that day. I also realized that a thoughtful gesture or pleasant exchange can be understood in any language. And that’s what really counts, no matter where in the world you might be.

With or without a camera.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on October 23, 2014.
©Betty Liedtke, 2014

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