OFF THE BEAT: Traveling sans language


Traveling is supposed to make you smarter. Surrounded by foreign stimuli, the intelligent and discerning tourist has perked ears and sharp eyes and learns to navigate the unfamiliar with sensitive footsteps. Like the raised hairs on cold skin, perception stands at attention and responds to the smallest of touches, becoming as receptive as possible to retain and adapt to new information.

The assumption is that when everything has a tinge of the unexpected, the mind becomes a bit more elastic. Like when you leave your purse on an airport bus in Oslo, or forget which metro stop your apartment is closest to, or get a cyst on your ankle from the only sneakers you have, which also smell like a tire fire.
This is you at your most stupid moments, at the horizon of awareness, embarking on a direct and oblivious journey to ignorance.

That continuous stream of foreign stimuli flows in one ear and out the other and mixes metaphors egregiously. When I studied abroad, I was in Berlin: everyone spoke English, I spoke the German of a mute grade schooler. My American-abroad faux pas were few, but I never felt entirely competent. Instead, I was kept in heady expectation of the unfamiliar: a feeling I realized I desperately missed when I returned to Berkeley. Academic challenges were dulled by everyday predictability.

Having just graduated and on the brink of a summer abroad in Copenhagen, my knee starts bouncing uncontrollably and there’s a sudden upward zooming sensation in my stomach. Though destination may be ripe with personal significance, the prospect of newness, both urban and atmospheric, makes me wonder why I don’t simply live in an RV.

When I travelled alone, I would often go for days without speaking to anyone for longer than it took to order food. Speech became a tonal communication: without knowing the language, I tried to tune myself into voices to distinguish among etiquette patterns.
Depending on a city’s average foreign visitor traffic, its institutions of government, culture or transportation were navigable by atavistic visual symbols: this stands for “luggage locker,” while that means “clean up your dog’s poop.” Accessibility without language creates an independent touring class, strolling down subway steps and flawlessly finding the bathroom.

I listened and watched intently while trying to keep my physical presence at a minimum. Mute for most of the day, I ended up writing a lot. Expression came absurdly easily through writing, whereas an unexpected phone call or polite exchange on the street became jarring and awkward. Completely unintentional and mundane lies would come out of my mouth, as if my face was caught off guard by the unexpected need to communicate and refused to let loose any information, such as which muffin I actually preferred.

I tried to avoid such mental stagnation through constant physical motion, walking the long way around or deliberately getting lost in order to forcibly locate myself. I wanted to not only see the city but understand its organization — which is not always a visible urban quality.

The novelty of the old is especially potent to American tourists, as they flock to the city’s historic center or gawk at the ruins. I was raised in Pasadena and schooled in Berkeley, and both cities lack a defined center: the urban space arises through orthogonal grids, not neighborhoods radiating from a core.

A quick look at a subway map reveals the city’s skeleton, and visiting each joint and end fleshes out the city’s topography. Having that originating reference point at the city center gave me a way to track both my progress and the city’s.

I can’t say my time spent traveling has made me a better student, but it undeniably altered my occupation of a place as a citizen and society member. Returning to Berkeley, I moved into a student co-op and began to actively explore Berkeley on foot. I would leave the house on a warm summer night and walk until I got tired. I had no destination or path in mind. It was insanely liberating, and I came to understand Berkeley separately from the experience of a student, in a slow accumulation of miles walked.

The feeling did not last forever, and I slowly regained familiarity in the house that I lived in and the people I went to school with. But the craving remained, to be surrounded by indeterminacy and savor the tiniest of successes.

I saved my paychecks and caught a rideshare from New York City to Jackson, Mississippi, then through to New Orleans and back to Los Angeles by train. I spoke the language, but it didn’t matter: I had learned to find the foreign in the accessible and keep satisfying that craving for newness. I have never been happier being a tourist in my own hometown.