I was twenty years old, and I was living abroad for the first time as an au pair in the French Alps. I was mostly loving it, but when the parents asked me if I wanted to go on vacation with them or by myself, my mind quickly flipped to an image of my late great grandmother’s house that sat on a Grecian island somewhere.
I had been there once before as a two-year-old, and I figured it would be fun to hop on a plane by myself for two weeks after having spent the last two months dealing with wet beds, bathtime, and kids who ran faster than I did. I called my yiayia, who was ninety-two at the time, and she thought it was a great idea.
When I was on the phone with her, I asked her how I would get into the house. She gave me the house’s address and told me that when I got to the airport, all I needed to do was take a taxi to the capital city and then take the ferry across the bay to our town, Lixouri. She said once I got off the ferry, I could go to the taxi stand, and the taxi driver would take me to the house where her friend would meet me.
It sounded easy enough to me, but I failed to think about the language barrier after bopping around Europe for the past couple of months, where I rarely met somebody who didn’t speak one of my two languages.
I booked my tickets, and a few weeks later, I jetted off from Geneva to London and then London to Kefalonia. From the airport, things went pretty well. There was a line of taxi drivers waiting for our flight right outside of the doors, and my taxi driver transitioned seamlessly into English after I greeted him with a very accented γειά σας (yassas), or hello. He asked me in English where I was going, and I told him the port, and off we went down the cliffed coast of the island down to its capital, Argostoli.
Once we got to the port, I climbed onto the ferry with my luggage, paid my ticket, and admired the view. Before long, I was cutting through the sapphire waters of the Kefalonia’s small bay, and everything was smooth sailing. Or it was until I stepped off the ferry and saw no taxi stand in sight. I had imagined the stand to be right next to the port, but no matter how many times I looked around for it, it didn’t appear. Guys in sunglasses scooted by on motorbikes, and old women sauntered by in ankle-length dresses, but no taxis.
So I walked. I walked around the little town square lined by cafés, bars, and men smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Eventually, I decided to go sit in a small restaurant, where I drank a frappé and wished I could call someone who could help me. I finally walked back to the port and happened to hear two girls speaking English, so I asked them if they knew where the taxi stand was. They pointed to a small white shack on the far end of the square that was marked with faint red letters which read “ταξί” or taxi.
I thanked them profusely and waited by the taxi stand until a man pulled up in a black car and asked me, “Πού πας;” (pou pas) meaning, “where are you going?” And in the best accent I could, I read the address my yiayia had given me. I expected the man to nod his head and take me on my way, but instead, he just stared and crinkled his eyebrow. I tried again, pronouncing letters slightly differently and with different intonation, but I still got the same confused look from the taxi driver.
I had a vague memory of the way to the house from the port because I had explored Street View on Google Maps before coming. I also had the name of the church that was nearby the house. So when he waved me into the taxi, I hopped into the front seat.
(In case you’re wondering why I didn’t just use my cellphone to figure all of this out, the French phone I was using while I was in Europe only allowed calls and texts to France and didn’t offer any international data.)
With nobody but myself to lean on, I pointed out of the square, and we went on our way. Once we got out of the central part of town, I vaguely knew which way to turn, but that was about it. So I just kept saying όχι (ohi), or no, when he went too far, and then ναι (ne), or yes, when I thought we were going in the right direction.
Finally, I just kept repeating the word for church, εκκλησία, because I knew one of the six churches in the town was right near the house. I tried to say the church’s name countless times, and finally, he understood me after about five minutes. Luckily, my taxi driver was good-spirited. I probably would’ve given up on myself by this point if I had been him.
After realizing which church I was talking about, we found the street that my house was on. A few blocks down, my yiayia’s friend was standing out in the road by the house waiting for me. In my eyes, it was like seeing an oasis after a few days lost in the desert. I was stressed, but I was proud of myself for making it. Overall, I really learned the value of even just a few words when trying to communicate in another language. If I hadn’t known those three words, I don’t think I would’ve gotten there.