Conversations, with and without language

Conversations, with and without language

Maybe it was because they were in the hotel business. Or maybe they were in the hotel business because of it. But Mom and her two brothers, Dave and Charlie, were always chatting with strangers.

I do it too. If I’m in an elevator, which is almost always a very short trip, I’ll greet the other passengers, comment on their adorable children, or, at worst, the weather. Silence is unsettling to me.

Mom was often in conversation with people she didn’t know. There was always something to say. Or write. For many summers when we still had the Parksville place, she had a column in the Liberty newspaper called the Chatterbox. There she would put her chatter into print.

And Dave, that dearly loved gentle giant, was known to everyone. No one could remain a stranger when Dave was around. He knew the local crossing guard and the no-longer-anonymous paper delivery person. He had a perpetual broad smile, which is why, when he lay in his pine box at the very premature end of his life, and the lid was mistakenly left open, I didn’t recognize him. He wasn’t smiling.

Dave would often tell the story of Mr. K, a tenant at the Bauman House. K never owned a car, so every summer Friday Dave would drive him to Parksville for the weekend, and do the return ride on Sunday afternoon. K was a world-class talker. Dave would tell us that the man never stopped his endless monologue, except at certain pivotal moments. Those were the times when the toll booths appeared on the horizon. For those brief periods K would abruptly fall sound asleep, his deep guttural snoring shattering the silence. Dave, with a chuckle, would relate this story over and over. It was funny!

Charlie, a dentist, was also a talker. Most dentists are. You can’t really have a two-way conversation with someone reclining in a chair with all kinds of impediments in his/her mouth. So Charlie did the chitchat while the patients grunted, gurgled, or choked their replies. And only when all equipment was removed from their mouths did he have the opportunity to hear from them.

For this type of chatty life, you have to be interested in everyone. I suppose my maternal family fit the bill. We all knew that there was no topic as fascinating as the lives of people. They all have stories.

Thus, I am a talker. But don’t get me wrong. I have my fences. For instance, I will chat with anyone in a shul, but never a stranger in a subway. I will always chat with a neighbor, especially a brand-new, just-moved-in neighbor. But trust me on this, if I don’t know you and you sit next to me on an airplane I won’t say a word. That’s a promise!

Sometimes, like in a foreign country, I’m even more likely to begin a conversation, which often, but not always, starts with the primary question, “Do you speak English?’’ In Israel, however, I’ll make do in Hebrew. The response is usually in English anyway. My accent speaks for itself!

In our travels to unfamiliar places, we engage in one of our favorite activities. We call it the bus to nowhere. When our feet have given out, which happens sooner than it used to, we board the first bus that comes by, and enjoy destinations unknown, the sights without the pain. Thus, several years ago, my husband and I were on a bus in Riga, Latvia, a place we’ve visited twice.

Sitting directly across the aisle from us was a woman, perhaps 40 or so. She was alone and visibly sobbing. I speak not a word of Latvian, but instinctively I wanted to help her. I crossed the aisle and sat down next to her, offering her a clean tissue, which she gratefully accepted. I quickly and unsurprisingly learned that she spoke no English. I planted my hand on top of hers and looked inquisitively, having no idea at that moment that we shared a disease.

Finally she put her hand on her breast, making a knife-motion. She had come from the doctor, and he had told her she had cancer and her breast would need to be removed. She showed me a picture of her young children. She was afraid she would die, leaving her children without their mother. All of this was gleaned without words.

I understood. I knew the fear, terror actually, of a cancer diagnosis. I took her hand and placed it on my chest, where my own breasts had been, where four children had been nursed, a miracle that had brought sustenance to them and a remarkable sense of peace and beauty to me. She obviously could feel that my breasts were gone now.

Then I pointed to my husband and to my passport. She could see that we continued to live and to travel once the healing had begun. I showed her photos of our children and our grandchildren to indicate that we were surviving and thriving. And I smiled, wishing then that I knew the Latvian phrase Es novēlu jums labu, a prayer for health and happiness.

She lay her head on my shoulder, and we hugged as we deboarded the bus. I had not had the foresight to take her phone number and address. I wish I knew how she is doing now, years later. I can only hope that she is well and healthy and perhaps a grandmother herself.

In our more recent travels, there was the story of Giorgi’s grandmother, another cancer tale without language. It was an adventure indeed!

My husband and my sister and I had hired Giorgi as a driver in the nation of Georgia. We all agree that it was one of our very best trips, truly fascinating, a former Soviet country with wide highways filled with cars, sharing the roads with many cows and quite a few huge pigs, Jewish sites aplenty (left behind by the numerous Georgian Jews, mostly now in Israel, where they are known as Gruzinim), and spectacular scenery. It was in Georgia where we shared a small rowboat with two Egyptian policemen, one of whom rescued me when I was totally, humiliatingly, unable to climb out of the fragile little boat.

As we drove along the major road, Giorgi, while dodging the hundreds of farm animals, hooted out that we were passing the turnoff to his grandparents’ home. He confessed that he hadn’t seen them in a few weeks. They had lived near him in the capital, Tbilisi, until recently, but after they retired they could no longer afford big city life and had moved to a farm. To us, there is nothing more fascinating in a foreign country than home hospitality. We volunteered that we would love to join him on a visit. Even in a somewhat primitive place like Georgia, cell phones are ubiquitous. Quick as a wink, he had them on the phone and told them he was bringing guests for a cold vegetarian supper. They were thrilled, so was he, and so were we!

Several hours later, after I had been saved by the Egyptian, we headed down a very long and deserted country byway. Perhaps 20 minutes later, passing very little, we pulled into the farm. It was immaculate, even though it had no running water or electricity. It did have plenty of animals. Luckily, we had warned Giorgi that we wouldn’t be eating meat. I can tolerate a nice kosher steak or schnitzel but I don’t like to know it has just been killed on my behalf. Packaged in the butcher’s case is more my style. Anonymous!

His grandparents were effusive in greeting their grandson and his guests and they prepared a genuine feast for us, lots and lots of homegrown raw vegetables. Not so delicious but really healthy, and kosher as well!

We and the grandparents had no common language but Giorgi spoke fluent English and was a fine translator.

At one point, toward the end of our visit, his grandfather invited us to tour the little farm, in the dark. I had recovered recently from a broken shoulder and decided to be cautious and stay and “chat” with our hostess, the grandmother, instead. How we women can communicate without language! An amazing talent.

She had detected that I had no breasts, and she wanted me to know that despite a vast world separating us — language, nationality, religion — we shared an illness, breast cancer. She showed me her mastectomy scars. And then she pointed to me, indicating that we were sisters, that we could never forget one another.

When the farm tour had ended, we were ready to return to our hotel, thinking about dodging the animals on the highway in the dark. In fact we learned that the animals are always returned to their farms before nightfall.

I embraced my new friend before we left. It was an unforgettable visit. Serendipitously is the very best way to travel.

And chattering without language is a gift. Whether in an elevator, or on a bus in Vilna or a farm in Georgia, we can relate to one another in sometimes surprising ways.

I can be reached at

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!

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