20 Sep 2017


WORDS & PHOTOS x Kath Bicknell

In Australian and British English, Fanny is a colloquial term for Vagina, which makes the street sign pictured above one of the most shared images on my phone. Finding directions to Fanny’s vag was meant to be the twist at the end of this article but this image makes people laugh so much it’s ended up being the starting point.

One of the real joys of travelling is being immersed in another culture. We put so much effort into seeking out different foods, scoping out the best trails and getting to the well-known sights. But how much effort do you put into learning a few new words?

Are you that person who already has a healthy curiosity in languages? Or are you that traveller who gets by communicating exclusively in English and, when needed, an app that can translate questions or text in near real-time?

This second type of traveller bums me out. They come home raving about all the things they did, but their experience and understanding of the places they visited are often incredibly one-sided. And sometimes surprisingly ignorant. They’ve spent half their holiday on their phones and the other half talking loudly and flatly in English, pointing at things when words fail them, as strangers consistently, and kindly, help them out. They know a few facts from Lonely Planet, the internet or other helpful guides, but their experience is very much that of an outsider looking in.

What sucks most about this is that the exchanges they have with others are very much a take, take, take experience. They’re quick, they’re typically task orientated (booking in somewhere, ordering food), and they often lack the laughter, richness and subtleties of curiosity-driven interactions that come with even a small interest or effort when it comes to communication.

Before travelling to Scandinavia recently, I found myself excitedly learning Swedish for around five minutes a day. I used the phone app Duolingo, which quickly and effectively builds confidence in listening, reading and spelling, but less so in speaking. It has its glitches (the off-line mode is incredibly limited which severed my plan to cram on the plane) but it worked well to build a surprisingly broad vocab. It felt like playing a game like Candy Crush, but it actually had a point. The more I played, the more I recognised the sounds that different letters made, which made guessing the meaning or pronunciation of other words much easier too.

Words I never thought I’d use came in handy more often than I expected. Tidning (newspaper) and glas (glass) helped with knowing how to sort the recycling. Bröd (bread) and various descriptors helped us to choose an excellent bakery for lunch one day based on some chalkboard signs on a nondescript section of road. Fisk, mjölk, kaffe and köttbullar made grocery shopping much quicker. Sköldpaddan (the turtle, my personal favourite) I never got to use at all.

Colours were surprisingly helpful for things like quickly choosing a curry from a menu (at a bizarre Thai restaurant, on a Viking boat, with a fake beach on the deck, in the middle of Stockholm), to doing puzzles with my friend’s three-year-old daughter, or scanning trail maps and knowing which coloured markers to follow as easily as I would back home: blå spåret (the blue trail), grön spåret (the green trail).

A few basics like hello and thank you are never hard to learn and are so powerful in the way they change interactions. “Tusen Takk!” exclaimed a lady on a horse as we held open the gate during a spectacular trail ride in Norway. This translates to “thank you very much” or literally to “a thousand thanks”. (“A bit overblown,” said my Swedish friend signalling a long and sometimes humorous rivalry.)

I’ve lost count of the times a cheerful hello ­– “Hej hej!” (Sweden) “Hei hei!” (Norway) “Bonjour!” (France) “Xin chào!” (Vietnam)… – has broken the ice out on the trails, or the roads, and led to all kinds of interesting conversations and interactions with other cyclists, hikers and people going about their day. These conversations give a sense of what it’s like to call a place home, they’re a time to ask questions, to respond to questions from others. They’re a chance to share the passion for experiencing the landscape, to help other riders who are more lost than you are or nervous about attempting a big obstacle if they’re riding alone. It’s meant learning about new trails, the local riding culture or making a new friend.

More than anything else, a curiosity in words brings about free smiles and laughter, at least as a traveller when, really, you’re dipping in and out. Whether that’s through the impact it has on interactions with the people around you, the thrill of completing a mini-mission (shopping, navigating, ordering dinner…) or embracing the maturity level of your inner ten-year-old.

Did you know that “fart” is the Swedish and Norwegian word for “speed”? In Sweden, every time you see a speed bump, there is a sign next to it saying “farthinder”. My personal favourite is the Norwegian word for cruise control: “fartpilot”. You can get a lot of mileage out of that one!

This brings me back to this sign to Fannys väg on one of the many commuter routes through Stockholm. The thing is, after a nearly a month travelling around, I don’t think I would have even noticed this sign if I had no interest in words. We tend to bland them out when we find their characters unfamiliar, which is what happens to our limited human interactions too.

My friend’s father, a proud Frenchman, is down on Australians because, when it comes to languages, they so rarely make an effort. As a proud Australian, I sometimes wonder what other language we even start to learn given how far we are from international borders, and the huge number of indigenous languages we are often ignorant to as well. He says the problem is not this, but that we lack the confidence to try. We’re too afraid of not getting it right when really, that’s the least of anyone’s cares.

Next time you travel, whether it’s with your bike or not, don’t be self-conscious, or worse, obnoxious. Be curious. Start with “How do I say thank you?” and watch how your interactions and experiences change for the better in response.