No Hablo Español

Gracias por visitamos Alajuela

As I walked around Alajuela, Costa Rica yesterday, my thoughts and feelings were in opposition. On one hand, I was focused on being very, very careful. Being a woman, walking around a strange city all alone and not speaking the language (not to mention the glaring lack of street signs anywhere, plus my lack of a cell phone with International capabilities), I knew I had to be extra careful. I kept my purse tightly under my arm and held onto the straps as an extra measure. When I took my camera out to grab some pictures, I was quick about it and then shoved it deep down into my purse as soon as I was finished. I was completely aware of what was happening around me, who was walking behind me and who was walking towards me. My eyes were constantly scanning the area: there was no daydreaming as I walked through town because I needed to keep myself safe. I was actually a little fearful, the deeper into town I walked. I wasn’t sure if I was in an area that was known for being safe or dangerous. Not knowing the language didn’t help matters at all.

On the other hand, even with all of my worry about staying safe and the precautions I had to take that kept me figuratively closed up, I felt an incredible sense of openness and freedom. THIS is what I have always wanted to do. Exploring new places, especially foreign countries, excites me tremendously. I thought a lot about the travel brochures and magazines I used to hoard in high school. I spent hours flipping through their glossy, colorful pages, imagining myself in every setting, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Yesterday it was especially wonderful to realize that, with the boys being nearly grown, I’ll be able to accompany Jim on lots of other trips in the future.

That brings me back to the language barrier. I feel very much underwater on that, and I don’t like that feeling. Though I do not expect to visit other countries and suddenly discover that everyone speaks fluent English, I have been admittedly surprised that so far, beyond the hotel, I have found very few people who speak even a little bit. Related: it makes me feel like I’m missing a piece of this trip, not being able to attempt to speak their language.

All three of my visits to Germany (Frankfurt 1983, Dresden 2006, & Munich 2010) were spectacular, but just on the basis of “language” I found Dresden to be the most fun because I was challenged in such a way that I could take action. I speak German (not fluently but definitely enough to get by), and visiting a town that is full of folks who don’t speak English (mainly because Dresden used to be part of East Germany and so there are fewer English-speaking citizens) gave me a chance to stretch my German language muscles.

Here in Costa Rica, “por favor” and “gracias” just don’t cut it. I can’t pick words out and try and translate based on context…NOTHING. There are so many places in the world where Spanish is spoken–and, I might add, that it is highly likely the next time I accompany Jim on a business trip it will be to Mexico–that I have decided to take action.

I plan to start learning Spanish again. I took class that one year in high school but most of it left my brain long ago, so I will start over. I want to show respect to the people whose countries I visit by attempting to communicate with them in their own language, not my own. I’m not going to go whole-hog or officially enroll in a class; I plan to learn gradually, on my own. I downloaded a “Spanish for travelers” app on my iPad already and will start with the basics. (Baby steps!) Arming myself with the most basic of phrases for the next trip will truly add another dimension to my travel experience. I can’t wait to begin.

Hydrangeas and Hubcaps


  • Jennifer

    Great plan! I agree that it’s totally respectful to find a way to communicate with locals in THEIR language as opposed to expecting then to know ours.

  • Jenny

    Melisa, Alexandra and I can help you out. That’s what was missing in our auditions. We should have made our comments to each other only in Spanish. Just kidding! In all seriousness, it is hard work for me to continue to maintain my language. I need to make the effort more to speak Spanish.

  • Tiaras & Tantrums

    I was in Costa Rica last year for vacation with my family – different area than you are presently in – but I found the people to be very warm — I think you should be okay walking about yourself(unless you have been warned already – just roll your eyes at me 🙂 ) Most of all – HAVE FUN – SOAK UP THE SUN!!!

  • sandy

    I so agree with you about speaking the language when you visit another country. I don’t speak French fluently, but I always bone up a little on my French whenever we go to Paris, and I would do that for any other country, as well. I do think it demonstrates respect, and I have had some great experiences from at least trying to speak the language and knowing enough of the language to be polite. I once walked into a FNAC store in Paris and said, “Bonjour!”, and the young male salesclerk put his hand up to his ear, grimaced (sort of with a smile) and said, “Americain!” I asked him how he knew and how it should be said. He proceeded to instruct me in how the French say it, and after I finally said it to his satisfaction, he smiled and said, “Ah, the French touch.” 🙂 Another time, a waiter took time out of his very busy schedule to instruct me in how to say, “Bonne Journee!” or Have a good day. Learning another language can only enhance our experience of another country.


  • Samantha

    I took French in high school and hated it. I plan to encourage my kids to take Spanish if it’s offered because I just think it would be SO more useful!

    (And I’m sure I’d be impressed at your knowledge of the Spanish language because mine is limited to Dora…)