She likes the smell of old books. So do I. So does the old, French man at the market.
There are some things in this life that we simply don’t need words to communicate. Beautiful moments where we don’t need a common language or culture to understand. Things like smiling, laughter, music, kindness, connecting with people around the globe and, as it turns out, the smell of old books.
It was one of my first days in the spanish-speaking world that is South America, and I very quickly learned that this continent was an incredible place to meet people and make lifelong connections. I had been staying with a couchsurfing host in a quiet part of the city. A host that had broken English on her profile. I was partly attracted to her because of this and thought it would be a good place to start my journey; with someone who could speak some English as my Spanish was a little (okay, very) rusty.
After a while of finding my way into her part of town on a local bus blaring Damien Marley and meandering streets to find the unfamiliar names that matched the address I was given, she met me on the front stoop. A sweet, young girl with chocolate eyes and wavy hair that wisped small curls around her face, though the rest of it was pulled back into a ballet bun. I was greeted with Spanish and some nervous laughter. I tried my hand at her language, thinking it would make her more comfortable & I put my things in my new room. We reunited after a few minutes and I began asking questions about the city in English. The girl stared at me blankly. After a few moments, it hit me.
She used Google Translate on her Couchsurfing profile.
Broken Spanish it is. She didn’t speak English & I instantly became incredibly insecure about my Spanish ability. Via a lot of confusion and even more nervous laughter, I followed her, blindly, onto a bus and into the city center. Not much conversation was had, but I was okay with that as I was focused on all of the sights around me:
Tall buildings that I could only imagine had been there since the city began, statues of heroes on horseback, graffiti, stalls set up selling corn, knick-knacks and Yerba Mate cups, and one small square-turned market. I understood some of what she was saying and I think it was a pop-up market. Not always there. She seemed excited about it, so we got off the bus and began walking around each stall, pointing and motioning to the items we liked or didn’t like on the tables, using only facial expressions to indicate.
Finally we came to the last table set up at the far end of the market. It was filled with books and an old couple sat behind it sharing a small loaf of sweet bread; their Mate thermos not far away. There was another old man looking at the books and we stopped next to him to scour the titles. Of course they were all in Spanish, but I was trying to translate what I could to see if I recognised any of them, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. My host held an old book up to her nose and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and I could tell she was truly taking in the scent. She likes the smell of old books. I smiled at her & she then held the book to my face and signaled for me to smell. As I inhaled, she thumbed the pages under my nose. I love the smell of old books, and she could tell. The wrinkly, old man next to us leaned in on his cane and said something in French. Neither of us understood, but the man grabbed a book from the table, held it up to his nose, took a deep breath and smiled endearingly at the two of us. He likes the smell of old books.
It was then that I realized one of life’s most important lessons. Communication and connection can happen at any time, regardless of any barriers we think may be present. The more I travel, the more I find myself searching for these small, languageless moments to share with other humans around the globe. And the more I search, the more I find.
Have you had an experience like this? I would love to hear some of your stories about making a true connection without the use of language.