I arrived in Warsaw with no applicable language skills. This state reduced discourse to smiles and nods. I added seven phrases by day three: yes, no, good, please, thank you, cheers, and German Shepherd. This last one is not a common first phrase. My dog and two cats accompanied me to Poland, and I have decided to pretend that the question everyone asks in the US about the dog—“What is she?”—is the question they will ask here. Perhaps because of the dog by my side or the bags of kitty litter I carry from the market, or perhaps because my physical appearance does not mark me as foreign, no one assumes I will not understand them. I have been approached for directions, to chat about the dog, and with various solicitations. At least I assume that this is what those who approach me propose and what we discuss with smiles and nods and my seven phrases. German Shepherd spoken in isolation and without further linguistic grounding never fails to elicit laughter. Thus, in these conversations, we add laughter to the range of discourse.
To travel in linguistic isolation is not to live between cultures but to live in parallel to the current culture as an observer and sometimes a participant whose actions are determined and informed by wholly foreign terms. The cultural and historical context I bring with me to facilitate interpretation is not necessarily applicable to my current context. The degree to which it is and isn’t has yet to be determined. I nonetheless apply my foreign context as the only one I have at my disposal. I mostly observe. I also rely on bilingual Polish friends and kind strangers for all kinds of facilitations and interpretations, for everything from finding a flat to securing a mobile phone to deciphering menus to enumerating the contents of pet food.
One might suppose that this kind of isolation would catalyze loneliness, but I find it a relief, a holiday even, from my normal fluent immersion. I am not inclined to check out or shirk responsibility, but I am often overwhelmed by sensory input and stimuli, particularly the utterances of others. This relief from the responsibility of language-based communication settles my brain and allows me to live simultaneously in the physical space I currently inhabit and in an internal space where creativity and writing germinate and develop. I have almost always had at least a room of my own, and contrary to the bliss of such privilege (or necessity) popularized by Virginia Woolf, I find it limiting. Certainly, my response is a by-product of the privilege I have enjoyed. My private rooms, extracted and exempt from the world as an all or nothing proposition, have often felt stifling. The metaphorical rooms I crave are the ones without walls, and I tend to be most creative when immersed in the world around me with no obligation or capacity to address it in any significant way.
In a foreign context, characterized by the possibility of—and certainly in my current case—complete linguistic isolation, I live both in the world and in my work. I feel connected and able to work because I am sufficiently public and sufficiently private. Would that it were possible to feel this way in the rooms I have been so fortunate to claim as my own. However, the room I am most comfortable in is the non-room, the non-container, the foreign context, the world at-large that I do not understand.
As much as I crave this kind of non-room for my creative process, I have spent the bulk of my adult life, and would have spent my childhood if given the choice, traveling to foreign (to me) places to learn new languages. In answer to the superpower preference question no child educated in the US seems to escape, I have always answered, “to speak all languages.” I will not leave Poland with the same seven phrases, smiles, nods, and bits of laughter I currently employ. I am unlikely to be fluent when I go, but I will be able to manage at least basic conversation. A moment will come when I make the transition from existing here in parallel to the life around me to being more a part of things. Although it will mess with my ideal creative sanctuary, it will, given other priorities and responsibilities, also be good.
Until this transition occurs, I welcome and cherish a room of my own that has no walls beyond metaphorical linguistic ones. In this room, the only words I contemplate are the ones I consider committing to paper. Free from the words of others, but privy to all the other sensory input that comprises the world of people, not much competes with my own creative language. Sounds, in particular, no longer overwhelm and are welcome. Here in Warsaw, where benches play Chopin, and I am removed from the obligation of ambient language, I encounter a rare kind of freedom.
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on August 7, 2013