Updated: Feb 7
I had just gotten off the train from Oslo and was on my way home, but first I wanted to buy some mints. There was nothing special about them, they were just mints. I remember they came in a green box, the candies in the red box were licorice, and the ones in the orange box were mixed fruit. The clerk at the kiosk was a middle-aged woman with spiky, damaged hair. I don't think she liked her job very much, a job that kept her on her feet all day in all kinds of weather, so I don't hold it against her, really. I'm sure she couldn't tell I was a foreigner just by looking at me. No, first I had to open my mouth.
"I'd like a box of the green mints please," I pointed, gathering change from my purse.
"What?" she asked no one over my shoulder.
"A box of the menthol ones, in the green box. The green ones."
"What do you want?" she asked loudly, not trying to conceal her irritation.
"I'd like a box of the green mints, please. There," I pointed, "next to the red box."
I was sure I was using the right words, but berated myself nonetheless for having forgotten my dictionary that day. Maybe it was the accent.
"Just tell me what you want now," she boomed. Her face was contorted with loathing for me, for my stupidity, for being so foreign.
For a moment time stood still, and I felt something inside me break. I think it might have been my pride. In a reflex that to this day causes me shame, I looked her straight in the eye and began to speak with great deliberation.
"I am deaf," I said, my hands fluent in graceful, false, and utterly convincing gestures. "Can you help me?"
The metamorphosis was astounding. Her face, her eyes, even her hair softened perceptibly, and her shoulders relaxed. She reached up to the shelf where only moments before I had been pointing helplessly and took down a red box, then an orange one and a green one. She set them on the counter in front of me and in her best maternal voice, asked me which one I wanted. The fire in my cheeks threatened to consume me as I pointed to the green box. I set my change on the counter. She counted it out in front of me, speaking loudly as she put a pudgy finger on each coin and announced how much remained, as if I didn't know, as if I couldn't count.
A long time ago in what now seems like someone else's life, I lived in another country. It was my first husband's country, and my role as his wife there made me a foreigner. The marriage didn't survive, and its end brought regret and sorrow. But as difficult as going through a divorce was, the experience of being an immigrant was immeasurably more difficult. Living in another country, learning a new language in adulthood, navigating the thousand little pitfalls that can ensnare the uninitiated foreigner, enduring the thousand and one indignities, all can become challenges of monumental difficulty for someone just trying to live, for someone just trying to buy mints.
The problem is language. While a smile can say volumes, words are, in the end, irreplaceable when it comes to making communication possible. While living in another country, language is the bridge that lets us leave our islands of isolation. I encourage you to keep trying to speak, even when it’s uncomfortable or not well received. For every kiosk woman there are five kind strangers who will be eager to understand, eager to help. There will be more smiles than frowns, and you’ll grow more fluent and confident with each successful interaction. You are the architect of your own bridge, building it one word at a time.