21 Totally Random And Bizarre Language Learning Experiences
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
Time for a bit of reflection!
I wanted to write a nice little motivational piece today but I thought I’d share a few random, bizarre and insane cultural experiences I’ve had with you instead.
All of the things I’ve listed here have to some extent involved getting out and actually using foreign languages.
It serves as a motivation to me to press on with language learning because so much of what I’ve experienced has been really enriched by being able to speak other languages at various levels of proficiency.
These few random experiences would not have been the same or in some cases even possible without the use of other languages.
Some are silly and others are quite serious. Enjoy! 🙂
1. Spending a weekend on the border of Russian-occupied Abkhazia, drinking 80% alcohol (chacha) and making friends with a gun-wielding maniac
Myself and some friends spent a couple of days on the border of Abkhazia (Russian occupied Georgian territory) with some refugee families last year – only a stone-throw away from Russian soldiers. These Abkhazian peoples’ homes were a few miles away but they couldn’t cross the border and return home because of the ongoing conflict.
It would be an understatement to say they absolutely detest Russia.
We spent some amazing time using the Georgian language we knew to talk to them about their situation, and make toasts with seriously dangerous amounts of chacha (80% alcohol content) for breakfast, lunch and dinner (it’s customary to drink it with meals).
I thought the chacha and constant vomiting were bad enough but things went a bit too far when one of the guys brought out his loaded gun and started pointing it at my friends after a few drinks.
2. Driving through some villages in Northern Italy with a drunk Italian guy screaming in the trunk.
We were staying with a good friend of mine in Northern Italy recently and got invited to an outdoor rave party near Lake Como one night.
I’m not sure why I was stupid enough to say yes to it, but I ended up being the designated driver for a group of roudy, drunk Italians who decided to force the guy who had drunk the most into the boot of the car for the journey.
He was reluctant to stay in there for the duration of the trip:
3. Evading a cab fare and being chased by an enraged taxi driver through the streets of Cairo
I was living with an Egyptian host family at the time (I was still a teenager) in Cairo and had taken their young boy out for the day.
Even though he was a young kid, he was seriously street smart and haggled prices like a ruthless businessman, so when we took a cab home and the driver asked for 4 ginee (Egyptian pounds/approx $1) which was 2 ginee above what the kid wanted, he stood his ground and refused to pay the fare.
I remember him yelling to me in Arabic “Igri ya Donovan! Bisoora3!” (“Run Donovan! Quickly!”) We both jumped out of the cab without paying and started bolting through the streets while the driver sped after us in his car. We cut through an alley and ran into our building where the driver then pursued us on foot screaming curses at us.
He’d lost us by the time we got to our apartment but we were both too terrified to leave home for a couple of days.
Looking back it was pretty silly for us to dodge the fare over a measely 2 ginee (50 cents) but the kid didn’t give me a chance!
4. Being secretly involved with a Lebanese girl until her father found out and threatened to kill me
I used to have a favourite Turkish kebab shop here in Brisbane that I’d frequent for the awesome kebabs and the beautiful Lebanese lass behind the counter.
I wooed her with the basic Arabic I had at the time (I’d only recently started learning) and we ended up having a very short-lived, clandestine relationship. It all came to an end when her dad spotted me walking with her one day and warned me that the next time he saw me near her he’d kill me.
That was the end of that!
5. Watching a Georgian Khevsuruli dance live and having an old man die right next to me
If you’ve never seen one of these dances before, you haven’t lived.
I went to this performance with a group of Georgian friends who helped explain what was going on.
To add to the excitement of the show, an old man died of a heart attack right next to me.
Quote from Wikipedia:
“The dance starts out with a flirting couple. Unexpectedly, another young man appears, also seeking the hand of the woman. A conflict breaks out and soon turns into a vigorous fighting between the two men and their supporters… Khevsuruli is also very technical and requires intense practice and utmost skill in order to perform the dance without hurting anyone.”
6. Having dinner with an Iraqi refugee family in Giza
This was an incredible experience for me.
Right at the peak of the Iraq war I met a family from Baghdad living in Giza who had only just managed to leave as refugees. The father of the family was recovering from several recent gunshot wounds to his right arm.
We chatted for hours in Arabic about their horrific ordeal and plans for the future.
7. Hiking to the summit of Mount Nemrut in Turkey with some Turkish friends
I never thought I’d get a chance to do this.
This is one of the most spectacular and peculiar ancient sites I’ve ever been to, and it was an experience really enhanced by sharing it with some local friends.
It’s a tomb that was built for Antiochus I Theos of Commegene surrounded by enormous statues of Greek and Persian gods.
If you’re ever in Turkey you’d be crazy to miss it.
8. Volunteering in Egyptian orphanages with living conditions that would shock the hell out of you
Imagine a small bedroom in an old apartment on the edge of the city, paint peeling off the walls, the floor covered in mattresses that wreak of urine, and about half a dozen mentally disabled kids sharing the room together.
These kids were destitute with nowhere else to go and there was no government agency or child welfare service (that I’m aware of) that could intervene as they would here in Australia.
This was the worst of three orphanages that I spent time in and what shocked me the most was knowing that a small portion of my salary back home could have fixed all this.
9. Receiving firearms training as part of my induction as an English teacher for the Georgian Police Force
Just in case the Russians invade again.
This was strange but very cool. Here I was doing my induction for teaching English to one of the police chiefs and I ended up getting some training on how to deal with a hostage crisis.
I didn’t complain. I got to play with some new toys.
10. Getting swarmed and chased by a mob in a village in Upper Egypt
On my first night staying in a village in Upper Egypt, I went out one night with a couple of friends and ended up surrounded by over fifty youngsters who regarded me as a real oddity.
Within minutes I was overwhelmed by a mob who wanted to get a glimpse of me and touch me. It was pretty terrifying!
After breaking free I was chased through the village until my friends rescued me and hid me in one of their houses.
11. Racing an Italian friend to the top of Pizzo Stella… and losing
Well… it wasn’t really a race.
I told him I could easily do it and he proved me wrong. I almost made it!
This guy has taught me a lot of Italian over the years and he’s also a Lombard speaker which I’ve always found fascinating.
12. Being invited as a guest Santa Claus for an Egyptian church at Christmas
Let’s get the white guy to be Santa Claus this year!
This was a total surprise but it was so much fun.
13. Falling in love with and kinda getting engaged to an Egyptian girl who spoke absolutely no English
I promise I’ll write more on this in the near future. I’ve got a lot that I want to share about my experience with cross-cultural relationships, particularly where two languages are involved.
Long story short – I met a girl in Tahrir Square, fell head over heels for her and got engaged to her (kinda).
She didn’t speak a word of English. Only Arabic.
For reasons that I’ll explain in depth later, it came to a tragic and painful end (Update: I explained it here and the story went viral :)).
That’s her in the middle:
14. Spending a day in the home of a scavenger family in the Garbage Village in Egypt
If you’ve spent time in Egypt you’ve probably been here or at least heard of it.
It’s a village in Mokattam which is also the city dump, and the Coptic residents make their living sorting through the trash and salvaging what they can. They’re extremely poor people.
I spent a day with one family in the village and was offered two bottles of Coke which I later found out that they had put themselves into debt in order to give to me.
15. Ending up a ‘person of interest’ with the Australian Federal Police because I hung out with the wrong crowd to practice a foreign language
This one’s hard to believe but it really happened.
I used to attend interfaith events and festivals regularly because they’re the best places to meet Arabic speakers and practice with people.
Unfortunately, I befriended a couple of really dodgy characters at an Eid Al-Fitr event a few years ago who seemed totally harmless and friendly but were actually hard-line Salafists under government watch.
After two casual meetings with law enforcement I decided it was time for some new friends!
16. Getting my butt kicked by a Mexican midget at a game of pool in Germany
What more can I say?
I was completely owned in a game of pool by this little Mexican dude.
This turned out to be one of the best nights I’ve ever had in my life and I made lots of friends from all over the world.
17. Working for a school in Turkey that threatened to have my girlfriend arrested because I pissed them off
ESL teachers take note!
This is more my girlfriend’s experience than my own.
We both taught at the same school in Turkey last year and it was all good until I had to come back to Australia abruptly because of a death in my family.
Our employer was furious that he wasted money on a recruiter to hire us, so he told my girlfriend that she had the option of working for him for free, or him getting his police friends involved.
I had left the country already at this stage so I bought her a ticket for the first flight out of Turkey the next morning!
18. Having dinner with the wife of an assassinated Chechen leader
This was another absolutely incredible opportunity.
As a teacher on the TLG program, I received an honorary invitation to a dinner in Rustavi with some Georgian television celebrities, politicians and the wife of an assassinated Chechen leader (I’m still trying to remember her name and find a photo for you).
My Russian is not very good at all (Update: My Russian is much better now!), but I was able to use the little Russian I have with my Georgian to communicate with her on a basic level.
It was enough to discover that she had a very painful story to tell living as a refugee in Georgia.
19. Being escorted by the Georgian police to the Azerbaijan border to watch the fire jumping at a Novruz festival
I’ve never actually been to Azerbaijan or even spoken to an Azerbaijani, but I had this completely random invitation by the police chief of the Kvemo-Kartli region of Georgia (one of my English students), to head down to the border of Azerbaijan in his cop car and see the Novruz fire jumping.
If you’ve been to Iran or Azerbaijan, you’ve probably seen or heard of this. If not, you definitely need to see it.
I wish I had a photo or video to share of this one.
20. Almost getting run over by a drunk Georgian driver and then assisting him to flee the scene of the accident
I thought I’d add this because it was pretty random and I’m lucky to still be alive to write this.
In Kutaisi, some Georgian bloke drove straight into a concrete wall at high speed metres away from me and then hurled abuse at my friends and I in Georgian to come help him free his car so he could flee the scene before the police arrived.
Just another day in Georgia.
21. Getting pushed onto the dance floor at an Egyptian wedding and making a total fool of myself in front of hundreds of people
This is without doubt one of the most humiliating things that has ever happened to me.
I went to a massive Egyptian wedding with hundreds of people attending.
They were dancing wildly on a dance floor with all the spectators standing around it cheering and clapping.
I was way up the back watching from a safe distance.
Some Egyptian guys convinced me to go watch up close, but little did I know that their intention was to push me onto the dance floor to dance with one of the female relatives.
I’m a shocking dancer. I’m actually biologically incapable of dancing.
I started trying to do some weird, half-arsed belly dance thinking that the people would at least get a laugh and enjoy it even if it was terrible.
Oh. My. God. No one laughed. They looked at me like I was utterly pathetic and pushed me off the dance floor.
I’m cringing writing this because of how bad it was!
And no, there’s no picture for this one 🙂
Subscribe for language-specific tips and resources below! 🙂
🎓 Cite article