The most important take away I had from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, which left quite an impression on me as a little boy, was that one should never underestimate the importance of body language. More importantly, you can hit on someone hard without uttering a single word – what is idle prattle for anyway? Yes, the fact that I point to the “Little Mermaid” as a major influence in my life gives you license to judge and make assumptions, which may be valid, about me.
Yet, truth reveals itself in a myriad of ways so don’t you dare diss the “Little Mermaid”! Body language, and a lot of smiling, saved me from getting stranded in countries where English is not widely spoken or, more specifically, where locals do not know it.
I discovered my body language reading skills during my second visit to Hong Kong. I was staying somewhere on Nathan Road and I did not want to eat at McDonald’s, KFC, or 7/11. I wanted something warm and flavorful. During my first visit a few months earlier, I was wandering somewhere on Mody Road when I stumbled into a noodle shop. It was filled with locals. As in most noodle shops in Hong Kong, the proprietors do not speak English but they have an English menu. Pointing will usually suffice as long as you do not have questions.
Remembering exactly where the noodle shop was, I went there for breakfast. An old lady was wiping the formica tables and plastic chairs. She shook her head and said something in Cantonese. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. She nodded. She pointed to the wall clock, which said it was 10 a.m., and put her index fingers together. It took me a couple of seconds to understand what she was communicating. To confirm if I understood it correctly, I pointed to the clock, held up my ten fingers while shaking my head and she also shook her head. I held up my index fingers and she nodded. She meant to say that they will start serving at 11 a.m..
Macau proved to be difficult. Good thing my hotel reservation spelled out my hotel’s address in Cantonese. My cab driver was a woman and she spoke to me in Cantonese. I shook my head. Portuguese? I shook my head. She spoke in Cantonese again and gestured at her face while looking at me. She was saying I looked Chinese. I shook my head and smiled. She dropped me off at Senado Square and said something in Cantonese while making a walking gesture with her fingers, meaning I had to look for my hotel. Based on previous research, I knew that cabs have designated drop-off and pick-up points in old Macau. She also gestured to what direction I should go.
I realized that old Macau did not have a grid lay-out but had meandering and narrow streets. I would later learn that this was how old European towns and cities are laid out. Smiling so broadly, I approached a woman who seemed nice. I had also learned that by looking totally helpless, sheepish, and adorable, older women will take pity on you and help you out.
I showed her my hotel reservation. “Manva!(the name of my hotel)” she knew where it was. “No English. Portuguese?” I shook my head. She looked down the street to our right and stretched her hand in that direction. Then she made two chopping gestures. She held up two fingers and made a swooping gesture. All throughout, she was speaking in Cantonese. I understood what she meant. To make sure, I copied all of her gestures. She nodded. We both smiled brightly at each other. What she meant was I should walk straight and at the second corner, go down the road until I saw the hotel. She was right.
English is not an issue in Salzburg but there are some people who hardly know it. At a hostel, I was eating breakfast in the dining hall when a member of the housekeeping staff approached me. Everyone else had gone away, and she caught me scooping up the last two slices of cheese. She spoke to me in German, apparently asking a question. After a few gestures, I understood that she was asking if I wanted more cheese. I said, no.
She later asked if I was Indian. I said “Philippine” and she was very surprised. She spoke while gesturing around her face, expressing that she was trying to figure out my nationality when she saw me. After I handed to her my plates, she asked for my “nom”. I said “Lloyd Nicholas” and she was “Vera”. She asked me “Tomorrow?”. I said “Prague”.
She picked up a plate and gestured like she was eating.”Czech. Kendall”. She was saying that I should try Czech kendall. Judging how wide her smile was, I guess kendall must be a must-try. I said goodbye and we shook hands.
From Salzburg, I headed to Prague. European friends were concerned when I said I was going to take the train. “How about by plane? It’s just a few minutes!”. I said I wanted to try it the old-fashioned way. They politely did not push their point but there was a look of consternation on their faces.
From Salzburg, I changed trains at Linz. A couple of hours later I found myself as the last passenger. The conductor, who was already wearing his suit and carrying his suitcase, gestured at me to follow him while speaking German. When we got off the train, I saw that we were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by heaps of rusting train parts and other machinery. He called out to a woman who was waiting behind a shed and spoke a language unfamiliar to my ears – it was Czech. I was already in the Czech Republic, possibly near its border with Austria. The woman gave me a very curious look, I must have been the first brown person she had ever seen in her life. She was also polite.
I was in a one-street town and the central district was comprised of Soviet-era architecture. At a bus stop, a police officer came on board. “Passport” he said through a very thick accent. I gave my passport. He and the woman looked at my photo and the Philippine symbols. The man shook his head: they did not know where my country was. He flipped through the pages and took note of the stamps. He examined my Schengen visa and said “France”. He looked at me and gave me a respectful nod.
After the police officer got off, we spent an hour going around the town and its outskirts. We passed through woods of pine trees and other conifers. We coasted on a single-lane road through a valley dotted with tiny houses, with smoke coming out of their chimneys. There were flocks of sheep grazing on the grasslands. If it were not for the paved road, our bus, and some very old tractors scattered around the valley, I would have thought we were back in the medieval ages. I’ve only seen such scenery in indie European movies about coming-of-age stories where the young characters discover the delights of physical intimacy somewhere in the woods or beside brooks.
We made stops at houses and street corners, and every passenger would give a look of very polite curiosity. We got back to the train tracks eventually. The woman gestured at the tracks and said “Praha”. I nodded but looked very confused. Everyone was getting off and a man tapped me on the shoulder and said “Let’s go!” in a very Hollywood manner. I got off the bus and followed everyone. We got on a yellow single-car train that also looked very much from the Soviet-era. It was six in the evening and getting very cold, it was autumn, but at least the heating worked.
We travelled for an hour and I looked at the small train stations that we passed by that may have been constructed in the early part of the twentieth century. When we got to a slightly bigger station, everyone got off except me. Then three men with mops and buckets barged in and started splashing around. That was definitely my cue to get off the train. The woman, who was on the bus, was also the train conductor. She pointed to a blue single-car train on another platform and said “Praha”. I went down the stairs and under the platforms and I met the guy who said “Let’s go” to me earlier. He smiled at me and gestured down the corridor and said “Praha”.
The train to Prague made a stop at every station along the way. I realized that if I was not good at reading body language and making deductions, I could have spent the night freezing to death on a bench at a train station in the middle of nowhere.