Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Body Language

“You go de andere zeit,” the bus driver tells me in halting English, his hand cutting a karate chop motion through the air, “and wait for andere bus.”

“And what time is it coming?” I ask pointing to the invisible watch on my wrist. The Russian couple is standing off to the side, a puzzled expression on their features.

As an answer his head juts forward and he squints at me.

“Uur for andere bus?” I ask, pointing to my wrist again. I think the bus driver is German so I am hoping he understand the Dutch words for hour and other.

A shrug is his answer.

The woman of the pair standing next to me attempts to ask a question in a Russian-English mix, but she is only able to clearly communicate her displeasure at the situation with large angry sweeps with her hand.  I don’t think the bus driver speaks Russian and his English is limited at best. All he is able to do is repeat in a flurry of hand gestures, German and English that we need to go to the other side of the highway and wait for the next Eurolines bus. The woman is not satisfied and tries to insist he answer her mystery question.

It is clear that talking to the driver is going to get us no where, so without saying anything to anyone else I turn on my heel and start walking to the restaurant overhead pass that connects the two rests stops. The frustrated tones of my companions stop abruptly after I walk away, and with no other choice they join me.

Why did I find myself on this sunny May morning, unceremoniously dumped at a random Texaco station on the E34? Because earlier that morning I and my two Russian companions were allowed to get on the wrong Eurolines bus. I say allowed to because I had asked the bus driver as I was getting on if this was the bus to Amsterdam; he looked at me, then my ticket, and waved me onto the bus. A half an hour later when I realized we were heading east instead of north, I was forced ask once again if this was the bus to Amsterdam. A shocked whispered “No” followed by “Oh Mein Gott” was the answer and we discovered two other passengers who were supposed to be going to the Netherlands and we were on a bus headed to Cologne.  The bus driver then made a phone call and then three of us were forced into a game of charades as he tried to tell us what to do next.

I am hoping to find another Eurolines bus already waiting for us when we get to the other side; it is quickly apparent that there is none. I give the Russian pair a weak smile and a half-hearted shrug, and then make a phone out of my fingers to show I am going to call Eurolines. No one wants to be wait around all day for this future bus that may or may not find us. I also have the added pressure of my friend Anna expecting me to meet her in front of the “I Am Amsterdam” sign at 10:00.

I am feeling pretty confident that this will all be fine as I dial Eurolines emergency 24-hour number. However after a frustrating 20 minutes later, I am sagging against the wall of the gas station. After I explain what has happened the Eurolines employee asks me where I am. The only problem is that I am not quite sure where we are and the gas station attendant doesn’t seem to know the exit number. Or at least he doesn’t understand what I mean when I ask about “the exit number” so that I can give a more exact location. The Eurolines employee tells me he’ll call me back.

I put my phone away and my two companions raise their eyebrows in a hopeful glance. I shake my head and make a waiting motion with my hands. This does not satisfy the pair. The woman grabs my hand and points to other cars in the gas station. In an impressive tone that both commands and requests, she looks at me very pointedly and asks “Antwerp?” I am only 80% certain she’s not asking me to commit grand theft auto but instead wants to hitch hike our way back to the city.

“No, he said to wait,” I shake my head and put both hands up in a “stop” or “wait” motion. In a flash of brilliance I realize I can use my google translate app to tell them what Eurolines said. I type it all in and set the languages to English-Russian and hand it over for them to read.

The man and the woman both shake their head at me. “No, no wait,” the woman tells me and points again to a car. “Fast.”

I try to make it clear that I am uncomfortable with the idea through scrunched eyebrows together, pursed lips, and a single shake of my head. She is not to be deterred and the two of them abandon me to start approaching every driver they can find. They hold out their bus tickets and excitedly point to them while asking as politely as they can “Antwerp?”  They are unable to explain our situation but through their pleading eyes and urgent pointing I think most everyone understands their request. For forty minutes I watch them bravely approach each stranger but every time the answer is no; the drivers are either not going to Antwerp or they have no room in their car or they just plain don’t want hitch hikers.

Finally I get a phone call from a different employee of Eurolines. Apparently I had not made our situation clear in the first conversation and I am asked could I please tell them again what had happened and where I am. This conversation is just as frustrating as the first and ends the same way.

A short while later my female travel companion approaches me again and grabs my hand with a big smile on her face. “You talk?” she asks pointing stubbornly to a red car. While I don’t really want to hitch hike, I figure the least I can do is see if the person speaks Dutch or English and explain what this very nice and very eager couple wants. Lucky for me the gentleman filling up his gas tank looks quite genial.

“Pardon meneer, spreek je Engels?” I ask politely, not really relishing the task I have been voluntold for.

“Yes,” he replies with a confident smile, ”I speak English, Dutch, French, and German.”

I feel my shoulders relax in relief since I feel free to speak in my mother tongue. I can explain all that has happened with the bus company ask if he’s going to Antwerp, and if so, can we catch a ride, without playing another round of charades.

We are in luck! The man is headed to Antwerp but he is going to De Schelde not central station. I realize that I am not sure if my two friends would know how to get to the Eurolines office from the river and if could easily get lost since they don’t speak the local language. My chest heaves slightly with a small sigh of conscession. I still don’t like the idea of hitch hiking but I don’t feel I can abandon them to maze that can be Antwerp streets. I tell him that it is fine; if he could get us to De Schelde, I can get us to where we need to be.  He smiles and motions us to the car as I nod to the pair indicating that we can go. The couple grins excited and nod their heads enthusiastically in return.

Forty minutes later the man parks his car in the free parking lot down by the Schelde. I thank him profusely in Dutch, 87fa0-925498_1379991388956790_1240844661_nclasping my hands together in a gesture of true appreciation, and we part ways. I become the de facto leader of our little group, guiding us back to Roosveltplaats by pointing to the direction or street we need to take. The couple must not have gone through this area of Antwerp before because at one point the man starts to wave his hand at me to slow down every couple of minutes so that he can take a picture.

Finally we are back in the slightly air-conditioned Eurolines office and the receptionist is waiting for us. She asks me yet again what exactly happened and I explained for the third time what had befallen us that morning. She is very sympathetic and apologizes for the trouble we’ve gone through. Then we are given our options: we can either be refunded the money or we can catch the next bus available, which will either be the 12:30 or the 13:30 bus. However she won’t know if the 12:30 bus is available until it gets to Brussels. I thank her and tell her I need to get in touch with my friend Anna before I can decide what to do.

Explaining our options to the Russians turns out to be difficult. They seem to understand that they can get the next bus out, but are having trouble understanding why it might be the 12:30 or 13:30 bus. After explaining it three times in slow English, the receptionist gives me a pleading look and asks “How did you communicate with them?”

I flash her an exhausted smile and pull out my iPhone. “Body language and a translate app.”

“Aha! Good idea,” she says and types what she wants into google translate and prints it out for the couple to read.  They nod and seem content to wait for the next bus.

I ultimately decide to catch the next bus to Amsterdam as well. I will only have 20 hours in the city, but I am the hook still for the hostel and Anna is waiting for me.

Seven hours after this ordeal started I finally get off the bus in Amsterdam. As I am buying a metro ticket at the automated kiosk I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around two find my two Russian friends smiling at me.

“Bolshoe spasibo, ” they say in unison, the gratitude in their expression making nothing lost in translation.

I smile just as broadly in return and nod. “You’re welcome.”

Tot de volgende

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14 thoughts on “Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Body Language

  1. I loved reading this. I’m glad you eventually made it to Amsterdam… the waiting on hold and re-explaining your story over and over again sounds like a pain, and the overall being late part… but the rest was lovely to read. What an experience! 😀

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