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European Voices -the Freedom of Movement Tour part 12 – the love of language

Our coverage continues for the Freedom of Movement tour with Chiara Ginestra and Alexander Colling who are now in Greece after an interesting leg via the likes of Sofia, and Thessaloniki. Chiara and Alex are travelling across Europe on bicycle to discover the wonderful right of freedom of movement within the European Union. Don’t forget to follow them on their Facebook page , Tumblr and their Twitter handle

We left Vidin under pouring rain. To counter the rain and the ascent towards the Sofia Valley, we caught a train. Being a native English speaker is both a blessing and a curse. It allows one to travel almost anywhere around the world without having to learn a word of another language. There is an expectation that people will speak to you in English in their own country. Whether you’re buying a train ticket or ordering food or asking for directions there is usually someone nearby who speaks almost fluent English. This has been true of much of our trip.

In Finland someone told us that if they didn’t speak English they would have no way to communicate with the rest of Europe or the world. And this is true for countries with very few native speakers (there are only 5.4 million native speakers of Finnish compared to 95 million German native speakers, for example). Depending where they go, native German, Italian, French or Spanish travellers can often find people who speak their language, but not to such a great extent as native English speakers.

English has become the common language of the holiday-maker, the business traveller and of the big cities. Chiara speaks three languages fluently, and I speak one. I can speak basic German and even more basic Polish and Italian. The native English speaker has to go to great lengths to immerse themselves in another language, to be put in a position where it is simply useless to try and communicate in English. Even when I speak German I can guarantee the person I’m speaking to has a far superior knowledge of and greater ability in English. It seems almost pointless to drag the conversation along, especially if the aim is to find out information quickly.

And so, at Vidin train station, I experienced something that is rarely experienced by the native English speaker, but must be a regular occurrence if you speak English as a second language. A Bulgarian man approached me and started speaking in German. My first reaction was delight. This was the first time since our Austrian leg that I had been able to communicate with someone in a language other than my native language. We talked about our trip, where we were from, where we were going etc. and we both admitted our German was terrible. Nonetheless we managed to communicate successfully and enjoyably. The experience of communicating with someone in a language that neither of you are native speakers of is incredible. It is none-threatening and more equal than speaking to a native speaker. It is a true collaboration with the goal of reaching some common understanding. It is this submission to collaboration and the faith in working together that proliferates fluency in language and successful intercultural communication. And this really resonated with us when thinking about the EU and the collaboration that takes place for the better.

Exactly how much a person or the people of a country expect you to speak their language varies. Again, we have found that in countries where there are few native speakers of the language, or where the language is particularly complicated, people expect very little and English is very acceptable. Attitudes in countries with more speakers of that language expect a bit more. My German can only go so far, and we were told that we should be speaking German, not English, once at a hotel we were enquiring about and another time at an international ferry port. This made me think about the UK. It is hard to imagine an Italian or a German or a Croatian showing up at a restaurant, ticket office, hotel or port in the UK and expecting the staff to speak their language.

English is one of the contributing factors of the British superiority complex. Language is a crucial part of identity and the British grow up learning that they don’t need to speak another language, that English is better than other languages, that people should stop speaking their language and speak English to them. A recent example of British exceptionalism is the woman who felt there were too many Spanish people on her holiday to Spain and it is attitudes of exceptionalism like this that have been tapped by the Brexiteers.

In Sofia we met Milen, who had offered us his flat in Vidin and who is a fellow contributor to Europa United. He told us his Brexit story, how he moved to the UK and worked there before leaving as a result of Brexit. He decided to move back to Bulgaria before Brexit happens. The care home in which he worked threw an unexpected leaving party for him, something he had never experienced before. He was very sad to leave the life he had started to build in the UK.

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The guys with Europa United contributor, Milen Marinov

We also met Andrew, who has supported us online since the beginning of our tour. It was a great experience to finally meet. We gatecrashed a meeting at the British Embassy in which we were fed the government line about negotiations. While it is good that the embassy offers this kind of information session, it was disappointing to witness British exceptionalism in full swing with the ambassador telling us the EU should give the UK a special deal because we have followed the rules for many years and also mentioning that EU passport regulations have prevented us having blue passports. This is utter codswallop and such a standard was never mandated by the EU. Even if it had been, the UK would have been part of the decision-making process and would have had to agree. Chiara also took the opportunity to inform the staff about the #InLimbo project and book (www.ourbrexitblog.org) and they seemed interested to hear about our #FOMTour.

Needless to say, Ferrero Rocher were not served.

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After Sofia we cycled across the beautiful border pass into Greece and caught a train to Thessaloniki. Across the border, at the Strymonas station we were in the company of a British man who had lived in Athens for most of his life, a Swedish couple and some German backpackers. Chiara took the opportunity to leaflet about In Limbo and they were all very curious about and supportive of our tour. We were entertained by a pack of stray puppies and their parents. In Thessaloniki we reached the first sea since we left the Baltic in Riga. It was refreshing to see and smell the sea and the weather was very, very hot. After much debate we agreed to take the train to Athens and cycle from there to Patras (we didn’t have the time to cycle both stretches).

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The train ride to Athens was beautiful. We passed Mount Olympus. My first time in Athens felt like a homecoming in Rome. The city was hot and full of traffic.

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Our next stop was a few days in Athens and a few hours doing some bike maintenance at the Zappeion. On the bus from Belgrade to Negotin my bicycle had taken a bit of a bash and I had only the use of two of my front chain wheels, which dramatically reduced to the range of gears I had (and with such a load on the bike, I use them all). With some advice from a well placed and very helpful mechanic I managed to work out the bar end shiftier had slipped and would not extend its full length to allow me to switch to all three rings. A simple dismantling then putting back together sorted the problem. I also swapped my quickly-diminishing tyres to lengthen their life until I can replace them in Rome.

Thank you to Milen for hosting us and to Andrew for the continued support.

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