Communicating in a Foreign Country

A mural in Valencia, Spain. “No Importa El Color, Todos Somos Migrantes.”
“Color Doesn’t Matter, We Are All Migrants.”

Effective communication can be hard. It’s even harder in a foreign country. I never realized how much I relied on written words until street signs, menus, and directories meant nothing. My first trip abroad taught me when you’re lost, broke, exhausted, and out of battery power, nothing will get you further than acts of kindness.  

People appreciate it when you make an attempt to use their language. If Americans get a bad rap for being stupid or rude, it’s because of expecting someone to conform to your language when you’re in their country. Greet people in their language. Say hello. Show off your skills, even if they’re terrible. Sure, they might laugh at you, but that will get them smiling. I found people to be much more receptive after I showed them I was appreciating their culture.

A few words go a long way. All you really need to know is hello, yes, no, please, and thank you. The more you practice saying them with their native accent, the better. For more complicated situations, Google Translate will be your best friend.

Most importantly, have an understanding of context and body language. People are still people. We have the ability to speak a universal language. At a base level, we all think and feel the same. It’s only with advanced communication that we can express judgement and discrimination.

Being in the unknown is a growing experience everyone should experience at least once. It’s a great way to expand cultural perceptions.  My advice is to express your gratitude. Smile at people, say hello and thank you. Kindness starts with you. I couldn’t imagine moving to a foreign country, much less having to migrate to a new country, if there wasn’t kindness. It’s intense, not knowing where you are or what’s going on. It was kindness that helped me through as a traveler. At times it was the only language I understood.

Moscow

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. I saw Belgium versus Tunisia play in Moscow, and Iceland versus Croatia play in Rostov-on-Don. When I told my friends and family I was going to Russia, some of them were concerned, given our current political climate.

But my impressions of Russia, specifically Moscow, challenged the negative perceptions I’ve heard. Though it was the World Cup, and people of all nationalities were there, I never experienced any problems with being an American. Everyone was just going about their day.  And though it was certainly much different than my American upbringing, it taught me a valuable lesson about traveling.

People are people, no matter where you go. Kindness is reciprocated with kindness. Most people aren’t going to take the time out of their day to ruin yours.  In fact, I was greeted with more kindness, generosity, and helpfulness there than any other country I’ve been to – including the one I live in. On more than one occasion a complete stranger saved me from getting lost, curbed my confusion, or even paid for my bus fare when I ran out of rubles.  

Overall, Moscow is definitely on my list to re-visit. If Moscow isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. Here are some things that surprised me the most: the first being Moscow’s sheer size.

View from Ostankino Tower

I knew Russia was the biggest country on the planet, but I hadn’t realized Moscow is among the top ten biggest cities by population in the world. It’s also the northernmost metropolis in the world, and Europe’s most populated inland city.  

If I had to describe Moscow in one word it would be expansive.  Around the city center, where old Moscow and the modern downtown is located, are multi-lane freeways that lead out to the thousands of uniform apartment buildings. The terrain around the city is flat for hundreds of miles, allowing the city to spread freely. It’s so large, it took us thirty minutes by train leaving Moscow to see single-family homes and acreage.

Modern Downtown

It was surprisingly hot and humid in the summer – just a little less terrible than New York City. It’s also dramatically cheaper than New York – one US dollar currently exchanges to 67 rubles.  Their metro system is also one of the most beautiful ones in the world – each station has a unique design made out of marble, granite, and tiles. One day we decided to just ride around aimlessly to check them all out. It was an all-day activity, seeing as how there are three levels of lines. I learned that they were designed to double as bomb-shelters in Soviet Times.

Russia is full of complex history, beautiful, unique architecture, and some great vodka. It was a mind-expanding and humbling experience. When you’re fortunate enough to go, note that Russians consider it strange to smile at strangers for no reason, and that whistling inside is considered bad luck.

Manifesting Iceland

Being the geology nerd that I am (I collect beautiful minerals as a hobby), I have always had a fascination with Iceland.  It is the only place where the Mid Atlantic Ridge rises above sea level, making the land made out of basalt (lava rock), and not granite, as other continental land masses are.  Essentially, the seafloor is exposed. Iceland also sits right in the middle of two great tectonic plates; the Eurasian and North American. This makes it a hot spot for volcanic and geothermal activity.  Hence, the world famous Blue Lagoon.

I was fortunate enough to have visited this extraordinary island on my recent European tour.  My time there was is a testimony that dreams come true…though not always in the most convenient way.  The cliche ‘be careful what you wish for’ is true, and my experience in Iceland proves it.

I was wasting time in the sweltering heat on my twenty hour layover in New York to Paris when I got an alert from the airline on my phone. I had to read it several times over to make sure it was really saying that the airline had cancelled my flight.

“What the hell?” I asked my companion, Ty.  We decided to go to Newark immediately, where it was confirmed that yes, our flight had been cancelled. Our only option was to wait three days for another flight to Paris that was within our budget. I was pissed.  We only had five days in Paris before we were supposed to go to Moscow. There had to be another option! We searched the internet, searching for cheap flights overseas as soon as possible.

There was a flight leaving the next night to Paris with a twenty-eight hour layover in Reykjavik.  I looked at Ty and Ty looked at me.

“I have always wanted to go to Iceland.” I said.

He smiled.  “And now we are.”

I shook my head, laughing.  “I never thought it would happen like this.”

I learned two important lessons here.  The first is that with traveling, unpleasant situations will undoubtedly arise.  And when they do, the only option is to push through. Find a solution. Our solution was to go to Iceland.  The second is that manifesting –i.e, The Law of Attraction – works. You will get what you wish for, if you wish for it with impeccable passion. One word of advice is to be more specific in what you wish for.  I wish I’d been a bit more specific about Iceland instead of just “I want to go to Iceland someday.” I probably could have saved myself a lot of money and time, though in retrospect it was a wonderful surprise.

Iceland vs. Alaska: From a Northerners Perspective

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska.  I am well accustomed to the cold and the feeling of isolation that comes with living at northern longitudes.  Though continental, Alaska feels like it could be an island, just like Iceland. The biggest differences are of course the culture and the landscape.

The first thing that struck me about Iceland was how flat it was.  In Anchorage, the mountains tower over the city as far as the eye can see, and beyond. But from the Keflavik International Airport, the only mountains were far in the distance.  Small hills protruded up from the flat ground, all made up of dark, rocky basalt. There were no trees, only moss that grew on top of the basalt and beautiful purple flowers that I discovered to be Alaskan Lupine.

Reykjavik is considerably more northern than Anchorage; and therefore considerably closer to the Arctic Circle.  The air was crisper and colder in the middle of June than it was in Anchorage. I was glad I had decided to pack a scarf and a summer jacket.  

The biggest similarity I saw between Iceland and Alaska was the sky.  This may sound strange, so let me elaborate. On a nice day, the sky in Alaska is the purest color of blue I have ever seen.  It’s lighter on the horizon, but as you expand your gaze upward, the deeper the blue gets. There’s a certain curvateous effect. I’ve noticed over the years that when I travel south, the sky looks flat – a plain plane of blue. It’s an interesting phenomenon.  Iceland had the same sky as Alaska, and equally breathtaking sunsets. Pinks, purples, and oranges tie-dyed the sky.


From the Keflavik International Airport it is a twenty minute bus drive from the Blue Lagoon and an hour to Reykjavik. We booked a trip from the airport to the lagoon, and from the lagoon to Reykjavik on Reykjavik Excursions. The whole thing cost me about $100 (Iceland doesn’t use the euro, it uses the krona, which is stronger than the dollar), but it was absolutely worth it. Another piece of advice: book a reservation with the Blue Lagoon!

The Blue Lagoon is as beautiful as it is in pictures on the internet, but I never realized it was owned by a luxury hotel and not a public place. Ty and I had already put on our bathing suits under our clothes, ready to relax after our stressful experience in New York, when we were informed that  entrance into the lagoon was by reservation only, and $70 each. But Ty had a different idea.

“The patio goes right up to the water!” he whispered in my ear.  “Follow me!”

He lead me to the patio and peeled off his clothes.  I did the same, goosebumps pricking my skin in the chilly breeze.  Steam rose off the clear, ice blue water of the lagoon. It was decently busy with people laughing as they smeared mud over their  bodies. I hurried into the water, but just as I submerged myself into the pleasant, warm water, I heard Ty call my name. One of the staff workers was standing next to him, frowning at me.

“Wristbands?” she asked. I did not have a wristband.  

So if you ever find yourself in Iceland, don’t try to sneak into the Blue Lagoon.  They will be on you like hawks. I spent the next half hour shivering on the patio while waiting for my wet bathing suit to dry.  

My biggest complaint against Anchorage is its culture.  I have always found it a shame that such a uniquely beautiful place has been so Americanized.  I contend it is not healthy for the residents. The limited hours of daylight in the winter make it extremely hard to get up and go about our days like we are in any other American city. Wintertime darkness and cold play a big role in northerners lives.  It should be embraced as a foundation to build a culture on, not something to work around. Alaska has a uniformity to it that does not do justice to the land. The typical suburban sprawl, franchines, chains, and fashion brands that make up the rest of the United States can be found in Alaska.

Reykjavik was much more unique. Their buildings were rustic, colorful, and nestled together in the city center.  I appreciated the small businesses and local stores that sold items and services appropriate to the climate. In Reykjavik, it felt like living in the far north was something that was truly valued.

“Look how well our misfortune treated us.”  Ty said. I couldn’t have agreed more.