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Communicating Without Words Is a Kind of Art

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on memorable vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

July 12, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a Canoga Park free-lance writer .

On a recent flight to Europe, there was a 3-year-old girl in the row in front of us. If she ever faced forward in her seat, I don't remember it.

She was completely taken with my wife and the interest obviously went both ways. Joyce and the girl flirted and teased and played peek-a-boo and grinned at each other most of the way.

Judging by their clothing, the child and her family were probably on their way to the Middle East. I never learned which country. There had been no words. We had no common language, but by the time the plane landed Joyce and that girl were fast friends.

In the airport my wife was lagging behind, looking toward the departing Middle Eastern family.

"I'll probably never see her again."

"Joyce," I said, "having had four children on our own, I can't understand why you'd want to."

She began digging in her purse and came up with a tissue.

"I don't understand either," she said. "What's to understand? It's a feeling. It has nothing to do with understanding."

In those few words, she had expressed a concept that had never occurred to me. We do almost everything--except shop--as a team. I'm one of those lucky people whose wife and best friend are the same person. We complement each other, she and I. But after 31 years, she still teaches me something new every once in a while. Joyce had done more communicating in the preceding few hours over the Atlantic, with a child who spoke no English, than some people accomplish in a lifetime with plenty of words.

Since then I've been a lot more aware of those instances of wordless communications and the real effect they have on the people involved.

I remember an incident that happened during a vacation we took in Switzerland. It was a memorable event in at least three lives, but the words that were spoken that day are mostly forgotten.

They weren't important.

The Bus Stop

We had rented a small chalet in a little village in the Alps.

One day while waiting for the bus to take us to the train station, we were joined by an elderly lady from a house down the road. After brief nods and the standard Swiss greeting of grootsie , no words were exchanged. We stood waiting in silence.

After a few minutes a look of distress crossed her face.

She approached us and began talking. Our German was too poor for us to understand her rapid and urgent Swiss-Dutch. We could only gather that she was in trouble and needed our help. Suddenly she stopped talking and began a hobbling run back toward her house.

My wife started to follow, but the woman motioned her back. Pointing down the road, she shouted something and continued on homeward. A few moments later the bus arrived.

It now seemed obvious the woman had been afraid the bus would leave without her and had asked us to see that it didn't. We devised a quick plan.

Joyce got on and began trying to explain the situation to the driver, while I walked around the front of the bus, hoping that Switzerland had laws against running over a would-be passenger. Hoping too that the huge, full-bearded driver wasn't as mean as he looked.

As Joyce pleaded her case, the driver leaned forward, watching her intently, seriously. I started catching scraps of the conversation.

Say That Again?

" Bitte, las alta frauline tiene muy problemas, " she said, pointing toward the house.

"Huh?" the driver said.

She pounded her forehead with her open palm. "Der . . . der Svis housefrau been gehaben, ah . . . difficult. . . . Oh, como se dice 'indisposed' in German? You gehalten this autobus steller, OK? She be comin', ja ?"

"Och!" said the driver, putting a hand on the gear shift.

"Nada. Nein!" said Joyce, trying to take his huge hand off the gear shift. "Est importante. Haltenzie der autobus, por favor, bitte. "

The driver started to shake and seemed to be getting red in the face but, at least, the bus was not moving and the two of them were no longer struggling over possession of the gear shift handle.

"What am I doing?" I asked myself. Here I am walking around a mountain road at 10,000 feet, offering my body as a line blocker against a 10-ton bus for a woman I don't even know while "Joyce Von O'Cantinflas," who can speak a little Spanish but no German, is trying to talk an apparently sadistic Swiss bus driver into letting his schedule go to pot.

I could tell by his face that he wasn't buying the idea. He put both hands on the wheel, looked right past me as if I weren't there and blew the coach horn. My arms shot out, I went about a foot in the air and for a second I was pumping pure adrenaline, convinced I was a goner.

It was only the driver's way of hurrying the old lady. She was on her way back.

I got on the bus behind her. She and the driver exchanged a few words and he seemed to explode with laughter as he let out the clutch and pulled back onto the road.

Finding a Seat

She shook the moisture off her umbrella and nodded to Joyce as she moved to a seat next to another lady in the back.

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