Turris Babel from Athanasius Kircher
Turris Babel from Athanasius Kircher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I pray my readers will indulge me tonight. Despite the many pressing issues I could blog about, I’m simply picking up where I left off in “Shephards, Shopping Carts, and Seat Assignments” and its Tower of Babel resolution. I’ve been interested in that ill-fated tower and what happened on the plain of Shinar for years. Words fascinate me. Languages fascinate me. The determination of a child to make sounds, the desperation of a person to be heard fascinates me. Communication with all its difficulties, all its despair, all its promise, and all its power is, well, fascinating.

Here’s my take on speech in a nutshell: All that exists begins to exist when we say so. Just as God “spoke” creation into being, so also does what we create begin its life with the spoken word. Moving rapidly from conceptualization to named conception, we humans incorporate our thoughts into things where they become a substantial part of our biology, our psychology, and our sociology. Don’t buy that? Ever heard someone talk himself into being sick? Ever read any “true stories” that no amount of snopes.com-ing or factcheck.org-ing will kill? Of course.

So communication rocks, but it’s complicated. Sometimes it’s really, really complicated, and we have to work really, really hard to make sense of a conversation. Sometimes that can be frustrating and fruitless. Sometimes that can be fabulous.

I left the plane in Newark, New Jersey, to continue my somber journey home only to be treated to one of the most ridiculous reentry procedures any airport has ever instituted. Those of us coming back to the USA through Newark were subjected to a convoluted screening that must certainly have been designed by someone more familiar with mouse traps and mazes than security and efficiency. It was illogical and infuriating. Waiting to reclaim and recheck my luggage, I was treated to the vulgarly-vocalized opinion of this airport’s procedures by another miffed traveler, a businesswoman who had been on my flight. At one point–perhaps finally noting that while I shared her frustration I wasn’t chiming in–she apologized for her choice of words, an apology I brushed off.  Babel’s mighty tower overshadowed baggage claim: Even without the obscenities, I’d have known she and I did not speak the same language.

It was an hour before I managed to jump through the rest of the hoops and locate my connecting flight. It was delayed. Then moved to a different gate. Then delayed again. And again. Once boarded, my seat upgrade (thank you, random Portuguese airport ticket agent) had me parked between two normal-looking people. Relief.

Then it happened. Normal-looking lady to my left leaned over: “Don’t get too comfortable. Apparently, they’ve double-booked some of the seats. There’s someone checking on mine now.” About that time, the someone approached us with a new voucher for my seat companion; this someone was to be my new seat mate. New lady to my left was now addressing me about a little girl–her daughter–seated behind me. The girl looked to be about five years old. Would I switch? Of course.

My new seat mates seemed normal enough. The young woman next to the window was college-aged; she nodded at my “hello” before turning back to the desolate view. The businessman on the aisle seemed to be accustomed to blocking out strangers on a plane. Maybe I’d have some silence on this flight. I had two hours of it. That’s how long we sat on the tarmac before the captain warned us we’d probably end up disembarking for the evening.The girl beside me began tentatively: “Excuse me,” wavering, heavily-accented, “what will happen now?” Of course.

Where are you from? Italy. Where are you going? Mexico. Ah. Well, I said, if we have to get off the plane, they will try to find us other flights, but maybe not for today. She asked about the money, would she need to buy another ticket. No, I reassured her even as I realized that her limited English–while much better than my limited Italian (ahem, ciao)–would not serve her well in this unfamiliar situation. So I told her not to worry, that whatever happened she was to stay with me. Just shy of three hours on the tarmac, we were cleared for takeoff. We would miss our connecting flights in Houston, but we wouldn’t have to spend the night in Newark.

The in-flight conversation with my Italian friend Erica was stilted. I was tired; she was stressed. Her English was textbook; my English was organic. We muddled through. As a teacher with over a decade working with mainstreamed ESL students, I knew enough to avoid idioms and to enunciate.  As a mom who understood traveling on a budget, I knew enough to share my stash of walnuts and almonds. Grateful for these tokens, she called me “gentle.” I laughed out loud. She looked confused. “Gentle not word?” It’s a word, I assured her, it just isn’t usually applied to me. She smiled with me. The shadow of Babel disappeared in the luminescence of that moment.

As we approached our gate in Houston, I reminded Erica to stay close. We jumped up from our seats, grabbed our carry-ons, and practically jogged through the terminal toward customer service. Fortunately, we got there ahead of most of the crowd, so we would wait in line just an hour instead of three or four. In the meantime, I tried to explain to Erica what would happen once she got up to the desk, but I couldn’t be sure that she understood me completely, and I was even less certain that she’d understand the Texan at the counter. “I’ll just go up there with you,” I offered. Then I asked, “Where are you going in Mexico?” Merida, she said. The older American man in line ahead of us volunteered that he was also going to Mexico, to Merida, in fact. “That’s great!” I was relieved for Erica–for both of us. “You guys should be on the same flight. Maybe you can help my friend here; she’s from Italy and her English is limited.”

The man turned to Erica and began to speak. I wish I could tell you what he said, but I can’t.

Because I don’t speak Italian.

Of course. Of course. Of course.

There’s more to this story–of course–so I’ll pick up here next time. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with these.

Proverbs: Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

2 Timothy: But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness.

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2 thoughts on “An American in Babel

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