The True Universal Language

Is there a universal language?

For centuries, many would sigh dreamily and nod their head in agreement: of course there is, and it’s love. Yet in today’s highly globalized world, spurred on by technology and the advent of the internet, some would argue that English is fast approaching such a de facto designation.

You could argue the merits of either argument, but I beg to differ. I’ve seen the universal language, and it is written in the emotions reflected by our body language and facial expressions. Of course certain gestures will differ across cultures, but the emotions themselves remain the same.

I was reminded of this on a recent rainy afternoon as I shopped in my local Albert Heijn grocery store. Ever since moving to the Netherlands three years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the theatre that is acted out in the aisles and checkout lines there on a daily basis.Little did I know that something as mundane and – let’s face it – boring as picking up groceries has afforded me a front row seat on Dutch society, displaying not simply what people eat, in which combinations and how often but also their manners, views on personal space and queuing in line, monetary system and methods of payment.

On this particular day, I looked down to see a small child, perhaps four or five years old, standing in front of me. The frantic twisting of her body as she looked first one way and then another, the eyes brimming with tears and the quivering bottom lip told me all I needed to know. She was lost and couldn’t find her parent.

'Wij vinden je moeder,' I spoke in soothing tones, summoning the best of my mediocre Dutch language skills. In halting speech, she corrected me, explaining that it was her father she’d lost.

Wij wandelen in de winkel en zoeken je vader,‘ I replied.

After two anxious minutes checking up and down the crowded aisles, I spied the girl’s father just as he spotted us. Watching his eyes light up in recognition and his shoulders drop with relief, I saw him quickly glance over at me to assess the situation. Seeing me point him out to his daughter and her ecstatic response, he gave me a look that clearly conveyed his gratitude. My response? The universal nod and slight smile of a knowing parent: these things happen, all is well.

Walking home with my purchases a few minutes later, I was taken back in time to an incident that has become a favourite memory in our family. Several years ago, while visiting my sister’s family then living in Sicily, we all spent a wonderful day together in the dazzling Italian sunshine at a local beach near the coastal city of Syracuse.

We swam and frolicked in the surf for quite some time before deciding to rest. As we made our way to the beach chairs to dry ourselves off, we became aware of the scene being played out to our immediate left. A young Italian boy approximately eight years old, visiting the beach with his mother and grandfather, sat pouting and crying on a chaise lounge. Not even the heavenly gelato cone in his right hand could deter his whining and whimpering. His mother hovered around him, trying without success to coax and cajole him into a better mood. The grandfather sat back and watched silently, becoming more agitated as the tantrum continued.

Without warning, the older man stood up, and screaming in rapid-fire Italian to his misbehaving grandson, grabbed the ice cream cone and with one grand gesture tossed it into the sea. As the boy and his mother looked on incredulously, the grandfather continued yelling, stomping his feet for emphasis and throwing his arms around to great effect.

As we watched in amazement, it struck me that it may as well have been a silent movie. No words were required by the actors involved; an Italian opera could have played boldly in the background.
What we’d witnessed, to our great amusement, was the universal language for ‘You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!’

I rest my case.

A writer and American expat living in the Netherlands with her husband and two teens, Linda pens articles on expat life and blogs at Adventures in Expat Land sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd with a twist. She is also a co-author of the recent bestseller Turning Points: 25 Inspiring Stories from Women Entrepreneurs.

You may also follow Linda’s adventures on Twitter @in_expatland.