Sunday, April 22, 2012

Foreign languages! UGGHHH!!!!!

In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.  ~ The Innocents Abroad…. Mark Twain

 Toms' Take:

I was born to speak the English language and even that has been a struggle.  I had a speech problem as a child, trouble with the letter "S".  When I used an "S" I sounded like a serpent with a lisp. You just tried that sound didn’t you?  I remember sitting in “regular class” when the speech teacher would come in and take me “down to the room”.   I hated that -- it meant that I would spend an hour of torture with her.  She would say “Repeat after me, Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore.”  I remember thinking, "you’ve heard me talk why do you want me to say that?"   “How about Roger rode on a red roller-coaster”, the teacher would ask with a smile.  “There’s only one S in that sentence and we can work our way up from there.”  Eventually I figured out how to talk without looking like I had been electrocuted every time I used the letter S and I no longer had to leave my regular classroom.

When Sandy and my travels began taking us to foreign places, we wanted to do our best to at least try and speak the language of our host country, as it is appreciated by the locals if you at least attempt to communicate in their language.  This was like speech therapy all over again.  I enrolled in a Spanish class through our local community college adult education program.  Sandy had studied Spanish in college so I took this class with our friends Jim and Jan.  After two years the school wouldn’t let me enroll in the beginner class anymore and I registered for one of the next classes, conversational Spanish.  Speaking English was not allowed in this class and after a few attempts, I finally dropped the course altogether and decided that I would just stay close to Sandy and smile a lot.

Most of my attempts at speaking a foreign language have been laughable if not disastrous. I remember a time when Jim and I traveled from the island Roatan to the mainland of Honduras to purchase some tools for work on our property.  Almost everyone on the island of Roatan speaks English but a short 30 miles away on the mainland of Honduras, Spanish is the primary language and if you speak English here, you’re not going to get much of a response.  Jim and I both tried hard to speak Spanish, we even thought that if we talked loud and slow and added an O to the end of all our words, the locals would understand us.  This, of course, never works.  In the end we just pointed and smiled a lot and by the time we boarded the ferry to return to Roatan, we both had a headache.

The problem with trying to speak the local language is, if you walk into a place and you greet folks with “Buenos Dias”, people assume that you can speak Spanish and they respond in Spanish and of course, I don’t have a clue what they are saying as I’ve just exhausted my Spanish repository.  I give them the same stupid look I would give my speech therapist when she would say “repeat after me, sister Suzy sat on a thistle.”  Funny how you can be transported back to the past so easily. 

I have tried so many times to speak with confidence, but I always get a brain freeze.  In Italy I've learned that I can only order Lasagna or Ravioli at restaurants, as this is all I can really pronounce.   When the waiter comes to our table I invariably freeze up and in a loud slow voice I say, “Ravioli-O and wine-O, Gracias". Oh shoot -- wrong language.  The waiter would look at me as I smile sheepishly and nodding as though he understood every word, he would sweep away my menu and turn to Sandy to take her order, sure that I will never know if what he chooses to bring me is even close to what I ordered.

The French language sounds so beautiful and charming when spoken.  Someone could be describing how to unstop a toilet and it will still sound elegant.  But when someone like me is trying to speak French it sounds more like a toad that was stepped on, croaking and protesting loudly. 

We were at dinner one evening in a nice restaurant in Paris.  Sandy had ordered and it sounded like she knew what she was doing, then Jan did the same and even asked some questions.  The waiter turned to me expectantly - it was my turn to order and I was anxiously looking at the menu for something that looked familiar or that I could pronounce.  I didn’t want to have escargot and French fries again.  As the waiter continues to look at me, pencil poised expectantly over his order pad, I felt like saying “Mongo want this” and point to the menu item.  My brain froze and I slowly said, “Ravioli-O and wine-O, Gracias”.  Oh darn, I did it again!   We are in France – wrong language!  I try again. “Umm, Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore”.   Finally I just smile and point as the waiter gives me a frown and shakes his head.  I feel quite sure that he is going to season my food with spit.  I should have had the escargot again.  Oh well.  I will keep trying, and keep smiling.

 Travel Tip:  Learn at least a few key phrases in the language of the country you will be visiting.  The ability to greet and thank people in their own language, coupled with a genuine smile, is always appreciated, even if you can say nothing else!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Concentration Camps in Belgium

Belgium has not been spared the horror of Nazism and its concentration camps ~ Breendonk Memorial

I studied World War II in school as most of us did and I have a great-uncle who fought in the war in France and Belgium, but he never shared his experiences and other then a few words over the years, I never learned about his time in the war.  I had read about concentration camps and the horrors that occurred within their walls and barbed wire confines and like many of us, I could never comprehend the reality of what had taken place in Europe during the 1940’s. 

Tom is a WWII history buff and during our travels through Belgium we made the decision to stop and visit the Breendonk Concentration Camp memorial site near Brussels.  Although smaller than most concentration camps at the time, Breendonk was one of the most barbaric and vilest in Nazi control.  Between September 1940 and September 1944, 3500 prisoners passed through its narrow, damp and humid halls.  The prisoners were Jews, Non-Jews, and those who the Nazis felt were threats to their regime.  All prisoners confined within Breendonk's walls were treated inhumanely, with daily torture and beatings. 

It was a gray and damp day when we pulled up to the fence and there was only one other car in the parking lot.  We stared at the foreboding building and the rolls of razor wire that still wrapped around its walls.  I shivered at the sight – it was sobering and intimidating.  I was choosing to visit this place, stepping into the building of my own free will – I could not imagine how horrific it must have been for the prisoners that were transported here against their will, never knowing if they would ever be free again. 

We entered the main building and picked up the audio headsets for the self-guided tour from the gentleman on duty and as we began to navigate deeper into the cold corridors of the prison, I could feel a very heavy spirit began to envelope me.  The prison was dark, cold and damp and this was only September – I could not imagine how horrible it must have been during the middle of winter.  Prisoners spent their days in thin and tattered clothing, working outside even in bad weather or sitting in solitary confinement with the daily threat of beatings and torture hanging over them.  Illness and disease was rampant in this environment and as we moved through the prison our mood became increasingly more somber and reflective.

Railroad cattle cars used to transport prisoners were on display in one corner of the fenced prison yard.  As we peered in, Tom made the observation of how small they were and the pictures on the side of the cars showed them packed with people, all staring grimly into the camera.  Riding in these cars must have been very claustrophobic and terrifying.  Just prior to the liberation of Breendonk, these same cars were used to transport the remaining prisoners to Auschwitz - likely their final ride in this life.  I imagined myself inside one of those cars and I felt an instant moment of panic and fear.

I hesitated to enter the torture chamber as we approached it on the tour.  I could almost feel the spirits of those who had been beaten and tortured here – the air was heavy and cold and my breath was becoming short and shallow as I began to listen to the stories of the chamber.  I jumped – a woman’s piercing scream came through my audio tour speakers, followed by the story of how many people – men and women – had lost their lives in this chamber. 

I shuddered and turned my head away from the torture contraptions that were still present in this room.  A single glaring light bulb hung suspended from the ceiling, casting shadows on the stone walls as it illuminated the chamber where many had suffered for their crimes, whether real or imagined.  The story of the tortured woman continued in my headset, describing what had happened to her within this chamber and providing details that I did not want to hear and could not comprehend.  Tears filled my eyes as I listened to her retell the story of her time and torture in Breendonk, all in her softly accented voice.  I could not imagine what she must have been feeling.  She had managed to survive the horrors of this camp and willingly shared her stories with those that visited, ensuring that we would remember the catastrophic happenings of World War II and Breendonk.

As I looked at the rest of my group I could see that they were as impacted as I was, listening to the same story through their own audio headsets.  Our faces were grim and pale, we had tears in our eyes and were wiping at them freely with our tissues.  I had to leave – I wanted to leave – but I couldn’t leave.  I needed to listen and hear this.  I needed to understand the horrors that had taken place in our history and I needed to remember that many innocent people died during this time in our past.  When the story ended, we silently left the chamber and moved down the hallway to the next stop on our self-guided tour.  No one said a word, for what could we say?  Each of us was thinking about the information we had just learned and processing it in our own minds. 

We finished the tour, returned the audio headsets and silently walked back to the car.  Travel is important for so many reasons.  Not only do we have the opportunity to see the world, meet other people and learn about their lives, we also have the obligation to consider the history of the region we visit and understand the circumstances that have helped to shape its citizens. 

The people of Belgium have converted Breendonk into a memorial site.  Not because they are proud of Breendonk and the horrific acts that took place there, but so that others might have the opportunity to visit and remember the horrors that took lives and destroyed families.  It is by remembering and learning from the mistakes of the past that we progress forward as humans, ideally learning from the experience and refraining from repeating such acts in our future. 

Travel Tip:  Research the memorials and museums in the areas you visit, and plan to stop in and learn about the history of the region on your trip.  Even a short visit to a local memorial site can help you gain a greater appreciation and insight into the events that contributed to the development of the area.