Languages of Laughter

I find myself sitting in a pub on a Wednesday night drinking beer, listening to a Scotsman translate between Ukrainian and Russian, while speaking English to the Czech girl next to me. Occasionally I can piece together bits of a conversation in Slovak going on nearby, thanks to my poor Polish skills.

Meanwhile, one of my roommates is talking about her new best friend, this hilarious French guy. At this moment, I realized that America is sometimes the dullest place in the world.

In America, it’s a big deal if you speak a second language, never mind a third. Studying in Europe, especially eastern Europe, proves that only knowing two languages is the most normal and boring thing you could possibly do. I’ve spent the past month hanging out with people who speak three languages at minimum, and since most of them speak some form of Slavic language, they can also understand and casually communicate in most of the other slavic languages as well. It’s just so normal. But of course, the language shared by most people in the international program I am in is English. It’s the language spoken when you want to be taken seriously, to communicate your academic prowess and intelligence. And, needless to say, there is a lot of that in this program.

What has made studying abroad in Poland most fascinating has been the wide variety of people I’ve been sharing the experience with. There are only six study abroad students from America in our program, and all the other students are masters students from a wide array of countries.

Most of them are around 25 years old, and they will casually mention in conversation that they just spent three years teaching English in Taiwan or Korea, or that they intend to work for the United Nations and have an internship with this-and-that important government office. It’s absolutely overwhelming being in the same room as people who are so ambitious and have accomplished so much at such young ages.
Overwhelming, that is, until they start to drink.

With drinks in hand, every person in this program, from the middle-aged veteran to us “youngsters” in study abroad, suddenly become the best and oldest of friends. This is when the languages get thrown around, with new swear words being taught and learned, when glasses get broken and drinks are spilled, terrible music is sung and compared, and the whole atmosphere becomes less academic and more comfortable.

The amazing realization that came with this observation was that this change has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol. Even when people are just drinking juice or water, there is something about the experience of sitting down to a beverage among friends that just sums up the spirit of central and eastern Europe. It’s an excuse to drop the businesslike air and just goof off. Sometimes I think this happens because there is nothing more basic and human than needing a refreshing glass of [insert drink here] to unwind after a long day.

The other most unifying aspect of meeting so many people from so many places has been that most basic human instinct toward humor. Even with a language barrier, a story will be funny if it’s told by the right person with the right faces and sound effects. The popular Polish music genre “discopolo” will always be charmingly horrible and lighten the mood, even when it is translated into Japanese. And whether one is from Slovakia, Germany, France, or America, apparently listening to a song about a papaya, pretending to be various kinds of fruit, and dancing around a hostel will always be hilarious. (I’m going to be honest, that one I didn’t witness personally, but I’m very upset I missed it.)

All of this—the humor, the languages, the time spent sitting and talking about nothing in particular—has made the start of my time abroad absolutely incredible. And all of this is also how I found myself in a pub on this particular night, surrounded by more languages and forms of communication than I will ever understand in my lifetime, watching two new friends accidentally shatter a glass with a salt shaker, and laughing harder than I ever have before.

Featured Image by Vicktor Hanacek /