The other day I was racing along the street when my crossing guard friend stopped me and asked whether I was going past the neighbourhood's Catholic school.
She asked because she had just arrived at her corner by bus, and had met on said bus an elderly lady who spoke no English apart from the words 'Catholic school,' and who for whatever reason got off the bus at the same corner. My crossing guard had determined (how I do not know) that the woman was to pick up her 3 grandchildren at the school I was in fact passing, and I said that of course I would take her there.
Well, we were about 5 blocks from the school at the time, and there were some twists and turns to get there, and my companion was getting very out of breath and quite teary-eyed as we kept on block after block with no school. Finally we arrived and she said
Because, in spite of being the only Catholic school for miles, it was the wrong one. I was able to enlist the aid of some parents picking up their own children there, but none of us could recognize the language she was speaking, and the only number she knew to dial on the cell phone she was offered was that of the local transit commission's automated help line
(which offers many languages, but not in the first few words of introduction, and not the language she was speaking.)
Finally an Italian-speaking teacher came by and understood that she was Albanian, which pretty much confirmed our impression that nobody in the vicinity was going to be able to help her. At that point she was able to convey 'McDonald's' and 'subway', but there are a lot of Catholic schools in this city near a subway, and a lot of those have a neighbouring McDonald's. In the midst of a lengthy discussion about possible bus routes, I had to leave for a moment. When I came back the others told me that, frustrated and frightened, she had simply stalked off.
And I still feel terrible about it.
I fear it may have been a case of Alzheimer's. If you were sending your 75-year-old-ish mother to pick up your kids from school and she didn't speak the language or know all the bus routes by heart, wouldn't you give her a note to show people to get the directions right? But either way, I am at a complete loss to know how I could have been of more use to her.
Should I have taken her into the adjoining church to ask the resident priests for advice? Should I have called the police to ask for advice on translation or directional support? Do they even do that sort of thing?
Albanian is not the first language that occurs to me when I think of learning a second one properly (it would be faster to brush up my French) but maybe the languages I wouldn't think of are the ones I should try. I mean, I live in Canada - a ton of people speak French. And I know a ton of people who speak Italian. Spanish: totally popular. Portuguese, Chinese - the list could go on forever and you'd be falling over somebody who either speaks it or has a friend on speed dial who does.
And yet there was this poor woman in such a tight spot, lost in a strange city on a snowy late afternoon, with so many of us reaching out to help - and thwarted entirely by a language nobody else knew.