In Years 9 and 10 at high school, I studied te reo Māori as my elective language subject.
I had a few other options - Mandarin I think, certainly Japanese and French. Te reo seemed the natural choice given the proximity and my lack of ties to the alternatives. Perhaps this was short-sighted of me - the French class went to New Caledonia and the Japanese to Japan. Zero points for guessing where we went.
I vividly remember the day I chose the subject - a hot summer afternoon on the blindingly steep downward slope of school holidays, before I had even begun my time at my new high school. The gut-wrenching motion of change, the Earth shifting unstoppably under my feet and time howling past my ears as I gripped with both hands the letterhead boldly displaying the school crest of my new and unfamiliar enclosure.
Another hallmark of that age which stands out in retrospect is the unshakable notion that such insignificant decisions would be life changing, could be life destroying. Everything was all a tightrope walk and impending doom. I agonised for days before ticking the box on the form, and then oh dear, the tick is askew, I hope that won't count against me.
In the end my choice did turn out to be life changing in a sort of way. I learnt a basic amount of language, and what I didn't learn or could have done better in can only be attributed to my own faults.
But the greatest benefit I got from the class were the teachers I had, who fall squarely into the category of those people you meet who leave you forever changed, improved. You bounce off them and they propel you forwards in the world, but they've unwittingly altered your shape in some way - vital during such a malleable age. It would be a platitude and an absolute truth to say they made me part of who I am today.
The first of those men died in an accident a few years back now. It was a shocking loss for all, but not mine to mourn more than the any of the swathes of people he had affected, which was many. That was just who he was.
The second is no longer a teacher, which was a great loss to students, but he has made that same positive impact as a pioneer and trailblazer within various other different communities. He is semi-frequently in the news for doing so, as recently as last week.
Anyhow, I never learned a language as per cliched bucket list specifications. Nor have I learnt enough to coolly utter "I get by" with a flick of the hand, or to ear wig on conversations, or to even pick up the odd word, or do anything but be envious of those who can.
I come to you today from Croatia, having slunk off to my room to write, in neglect of the endless unexplored bounty outside. I feel a little like a child at a party, pulled aside by their wise mother to wash their hands before saveloys are served.
The most foreign part is how foreign all the parts are. Others seem able to reconcile it to past experiences - "it's a little like Spain mixed with wherever or whatever". For me, having never made it farther than Perth, it is not like anything I've experienced before.
The most notable peculiarity is that when as I walk the streets, for the first time ever I hear very little English, and instead the most fantastic muddle of dialects seemingly dosed in precise proportions to balance and compliment and create a cocktail of sounds. Except the Germans of course, who down the glass and refill it with pungent Jagermeister. Never have I longed to be able to understand it all more than I do now.
Perhaps there's no need. I recently stayed at a homestay that had hosted a Korean couple who spoke no more English than "hello". They sat up together all night, drinking and being merry, using Google Translate to go back and forth in a flow that rather than being stilted was enhanced with anticipation of the next words and humour of the occasional mistranslation. Ponder the absurdity of that for a moment, through the eyes of yourself 20 years ago.
I have likewise made friends here using sparse communication, the bond instantly enriched by the sheer joy of understanding each other for just a few words, the smiles broad and the nods vigorous as we both acknowledge it.
So what has been the great learning, the priceless fortune of unpurchasable "change" that travel is supposed to do to you?
Perhaps it has only changed how I see what I already knew. Language is our connector, the bridge between lands and cultures and people. With the advance of technology, that gap is easier to close than ever before. What remains unchanged wherever you go, or whatever you speak, is the incredible connections to be made with any of the people around you - whether that is via learning, listening, confusing, Googling or eavesdropping doesn't really matter.