Greek, Turkish and What Knowing the Language Can Do For Your Travel Experience

We always prefer to learn at least a little bit of the language if it’s possible before visiting a place where English is scant. In today’s guest post, Aaron takes us to Greece and shares a story of when he felt limited by the language barrier.

The boat ride out was a nightmare. I spent the majority of my time leaning over the ferry’s stern rail, waging a green complected fight for balance in the pitch and yaw of the sea. The Greek island of Samos was just an hour off the Turkish shore, but it was an hour spent in queazy solitude. Just me and the rail.

pistachio seller

Getting to know a local pistachio seller.

We had lived in Turkey for over three years and had yet to visit Greece. A trip to a Greek island for the day seemed the perfect chance to get another stamp in our passports, to eat a gyro and to once again stray into the unknown. Unknown for us because, while our Turkish is quite good, we don’t know a word of Greek.

As I stumbled off the boat, locating my equally queazy wife, my two kids and our friends with whom we’d met for this day’s adventure, I noticed immediately the white and blue of the Greek flag. In all my travels, I still thrill at the sight of a new flag and the thought of a border crossed. I was for the first time in my life in Greece.

As we walked the streets and regained our health, the joy of exploring new territory soon replaced the seasickness. I began to take in the sights and sounds, the similarities and differences. The Greek script soon jumped out at me from every sign, reminding me again and again that I wasn’t in Turkey any more. Despite these visual reminders, I twice walked up to residents of the island to ask for directions – in Turkish – and was both times met with empty stares. One was a worn old fisherman who I am sure was filled with stories of life on the island, stories I would never hear. Without Greek I was unable to communicate.

Hanging out with all the kids in Samos.

The island of Samos is a wonder to behold. The Samos Archeological Museum is a cultural treasure trove of artifacts and statuary and is free of charge. It houses a massive collection for so small an island and includes the nearly five meter tall Statue of Kuros as well as dozens of other statues from the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman Periods. The museum was great for us and our kids and we still laugh at the thought of my friend’s six year old daughter walking up to one naked statue after another, pointing with outstretched hand at the obvious anatomy and exclaiming, “It’s a boy!”

We spent five fun hours exploring the quiet seaside village where the museum resides. We took loads of pictures that day, ate great food, enjoyed Greek architecture and, in general, had a lovely time on this Greek island. As three families with seven kids under seven years old, we left much of the island unexplored though and on calm seas, I would definitely visit again.

And yet as nice as our day was on Samos, it seemed as if something were missing.

The days before our trip out to the island had been spent traveling the Turkish Aegean coast down from Istanbul, visiting the town of Bergmum and the ancient hill top city of Pergamum before heading on to the coastal town of Kusadasi.

Like so many of our trips wandering about Turkey, we left the well worn path, turning our Toyota Corolla down any rural road that pointed in the right direction – south. We stop for lunch and discover local flavors not known in the big city. We stop off at small local parks and watch in wonder as our kids make new friends. We visit with moms and dads about life, about parenting and work and all the minor details that shape our lives and theirs. We pull our car off to the side of the road to let a shepherd and his flock pass, taking a moment to hear about his life.

We take pictures too, of course, and see the ancient sites, but there is something deeper about our experiences. Something that knowing the language opens up in connection and relationship and shared stories.

With friends we met on the road in the small town of Luleburgaz.

Returning from the Greek island of Samos, our camera was full of great pictures, our bellies full of good food and and our minds filled with good memories. But that seemed about it. It was as if we’d walked through a museum of relics devoid of life. We had talked to few people outside of the restaurant owner who knew some English. We had seen the island but we hadn’t gotten to know it. For as is true of any country, you can’t really know Greece if you can’t get to know her people.

I am not sure I had fully understood the advantage of knowing the language before our trip to Samos. Yes, I knew it made travel less complicated; ordering food, asking directions, reading signs and finding the bathroom are all easier when you know the local language.

But I don’t think I had realized just how much knowing the language affected the quality and depth of the travel experience. On Samos we’d taken lots of great pictures that one day will serve to remind us of our visit. In Turkey, however, the pictures we take are painted on our hearts.

I will always love to travel to new countries, to see the world and its wonders. I certainly won’t let an unknown language stop me from visiting these places with my family. But I have learned that there is something special about taking the time to travel slow, to settle in long enough to learn the language of the locals. I’ll go back to Greece again one day. Our family enjoys traveling too much not to get out and explore more of our world. But our true joy will continue to be found with a tulip shaped glass of hot Turkish tea and long conversations about life with those we meet out on the highways and byways of Turkey.

Bio: Aaron Myers is a language coach who lives with his family in Istanbul, Turkey. He is the writer behind The Everyday Language Learner and creator of The Ten Week Journey, a free course helping everyday people become independent language learners. Feel free to connect @aarongmyers.

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