It is our lot in life that as we age we become the people we mocked in our youth, a process the more painful for our awareness of it. The circumstances of my life were such that I did not do any significant travel outside the United States until the last few years, and now I find myself the stuff of cartoons—an out-of-shape, overweight, monoglot American in a flowered shirt and baggy shorts, staying in expensive American chain hotels, occasionally thinking, y’know, a tour bus doesn’t sound like all that bad an idea.
When we traveled in Europe a few months ago, I had a general sense of familiarity with Germanic and Romance languages. Not only did virtually everyone we encountered in Europe speak passable English (or better) but also we were able to read street signs and menus and pick up a few words—enough to get by comfortably. Now, though, we are in Asia. After planes and trains, with transit points in Seoul and Tokyo, we are in Nagoya. English instruction is not strong in Japan (nor is Japanese instruction strong in the US, so this should be understood as a judgment-free description, not a complaint). Staff in the hotel where we are staying do pretty well. Dealing with shop clerks or asking directions on the street, though, involves much pantomime and a great deal more smiling and bowing than actual information exchange. I cannot read street signs or menus. We have a phrase book, but we really have not progressed beyond good afternoon and thank you. I suddenly have the linguistic sophistication of a six-month-old. I find myself pointing a lot.
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