martedì 2 dicembre 2014

Travelling as a way of living, trilingualism as a way of communicating with the world

I at Angkor, Cambodia
by Olga Lenczewska

During the last three years I have been constantly living between three countries: Poland, the United Kingdom, and Italy. A few years ago, when I was in high school, I also spent one year living in the United States. I don’t use the word “abroad” anymore, because it simply doesn’t mean anything specific for me. When asked to provide my address on a document, I always hesitate, unsure which one of the three I’ve got to write down. Same thing with my phone number. 

How has it all started? No, my parents aren’t diplomats. Neither is my family multinational. They’re both Polish and it is in Poland that I spent my early and adolestent life. By applying to study in a foreign country for a course with a compulsory year abroad in yet another country I chose to lead a different life myself. Maybe precisely because I wasn’t “born into” a multicultural and multilingual life I have so much to say on why I appreciate it and how travelling like this changes you completely.

Despite living between three countries already, I travel to others whenever time and money allow me to. Last year I have been to Hungary, Holland, Spain, and Germany, and this year to Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. I currently live in Pavia, but since September I have already managed to visit friends in Oxford and Warsaw. I have been on nine flights since September alone. I’m going back to Poland for Christmas and then in January I’m flying to Morocco with a friend, after which I have to move to Rome for another half a year, probably visiting friends in France and England in the meantime. In June I want to go to China for two months, then back to Poland for the rest of summer holidays, and finally back to Oxford to complete my Bachelor degree in Modern Languages and Philosophy.

The multicultural aspect of Oxford - my university town - allowed me to make friends with people from around the world, which suddenly became smaller than it appeared before. Oxford is a minature of the whole earth, representing its cultural, religious, and linguistic variety in a way which forces you to embrace it, not approach it with indifference. But it doesn’t mean Oxford made me want to be a tourist. I don’t like the word “tourist”. It carries an assumption that you go somewhere, use expensive facilities and live in posh hotels, sightseeing the most obvious attractions with a guide’s aid. In all of that gets lost what for me is the essence of travelling, and in all of that it is virtually impossible to witness the authentic culture and customs of a place. And, yes, whilst when travelling privately or even on your own you can sometimes find yourself in places you don’t feel safe in and see one cockcoach too many, believe me, it’s worth it.

A Buddhist temple in Bangkok
When I go abroad - wherever “abroad” is at the moment - I consider it not only a chance to see new places, but above all an opportunity to learn new ways of living, understand other cultural heritages, and become a wiser person by comparing what I see now to what I lived around before. During the days when I visit a place I’ve previously not been to, I feel happiness that I don’t experience otherwise. Sometimes a new city appeals to me to such an extent that I want to shout “I’m going to live here one day!” and there would be nothing wrong with this had it not been for the fact that I shout this way too often. Whilst I can’t live in all these paces simultaneously, I can visit them from time to time, and whilst some destinations remain my future home only in my dreams, there are a few countries where I really feel at home.

But travelling so often, despite what you may think, did not only make me “lose” my one home that I once had. It also, and more importantly, made me understand in which ways I’m Polish (and always be Polish not matter where I am) and, on a bigger scale, in which ways I’m European. If you travel around your continent, your cultural perspective broadens to the extent that you’re able to understand yourself in the wider context of the whole continent. When you travel to different continents, however, your cultural perspective broadens even further and you begin to understand yourself in the context of the whole world. That’s because it is only when facing something different and unfamiliar that you’re able to fully understand yourself. Making this realisation happen is the most exciting thing you can chose to do with your life.

Lastly, there’s one thing which changed me even more than having lived in four countries: having become trilingual. I use the word “trilingual” is a loose sense, because I’m not, of course, properly trilingual. I do nevertheless speak fluently (and think and dream in) English, Polish, and Italian, or preferably speak a combination of these if the linguistic skills of my conversational partner permit me. Much have been said about the effects of multilingualism on people, but I consider worth mentioning just one thing: speaking a few languages fluently is the thing that surprises me in myself the most. Sometimes my mind suddently switches to another language without an obvious reason, and witnessing this “from the inside” is baffling. But one drawback of this fact is that whenever I speak with someone who doesn’t know all three of these languages (that is, around 95% of my interlocutors), I feel as though a part of me cannot be understood or expressed and I have to be careful in which tongue I formulate my thoughts. When I find someone who speaks all three of them, however, there’s no fun beyond starting a sentence in one language and finishing it in another, or worrying that I cannot find a word for something in one tongue, because I can just express what I want to in any linguistic form that I know.

I’m not sure where I’m going to live when (if?) I finally settle down. But this uncertainty doesn’t terrify me. On the contrary, it feels quite exciting. After all, I’ve got all the necessary tools to be able to consciously choose where I want to spend the rest of my life. And with friends all around the world, I will be able to travel without feeling like an intrusive tourist even when I settle down.

Floating market in Thailand

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