Served by language

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"I'll take a guess and ask, are you from Austria?" I query.

"That's a great guess, but I'm actually from a country slightly north of Austria. I'm from Latvia."

So our conversation continued as I was fascinated by her world prowess. We found ourselves seated next to each other at a community banquet, each representing our employers.

One of our conversation topics was languages people know. We concluded that Europeans need to know several languages due to easy and proximal travel to other nearby countries, compared to us in the USA who live in a huge country where nearly everyone speaks English; we travel from state-to-state, but all in the same country. My new friend speaks four languages.

"In lower school we all studied our native Latvian, but we also studied Russian due to history markers. I love the Russian language and especially enjoy reading Tolstoy in the native language. For the third language, I'd share that since my mother was a journalist, we had home library shelves filled with a wall of books in German; I came into German mostly by osmosis. And then in 1991, I, like many Europeans, learned English by watching CNN. This world-news channel brought a remarkable new means of keeping up with current affairs into our lives. I've lived here in the United States for about 12 years, and I've been told that my English is fairly Americanized. I tell them, 'Well, what do you expect — I learned English from American television.'"

I say, "Yes, your English is excellent, but now that you mention Latvia and continue to speak, I'm picking up hints of Swedish. You actually sound a little like Ingrid Bergman."

"What a wonderful compliment!" she responds. "That's one of the best things anyone has ever said to me. What an honor to be found similar to Ms. Bergman. I've always loved her. Of course, Latvia isn't that far from Stockholm, so I guess there's a natural bond."

"How about you — how are you with language?" she asks me.

"Oh," I respond, "other than taking Latin in high school and French in college, I'm better at vocabulary than at conversation. For example, this past summer I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. Getting into St. Peter's Square meant going through airport-type metal detectors and security, so as the line I was in got closer, I heard the guard saying loudly, 'L'orologio! L'orologio!' Persons in line ahead of me seemed oblivious to what he was saying, which appeared to frustrate him, but I knew that "l'orologio" means wristwatch in Italian, so I took off my watch and put it into the bowl he was holding. He smiled and said,'"Grazie,' as though a foreigner finally understood his command. I responded, 'Prego.'"

"Great story," she said. "Say, isn't Prego a spaghetti sauce?"

"Indeed it is," I confirm. And we both smiled knowing that language is serving us well.

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati Ohio.]