Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.
As a traveller who has a love of foreign lands, I’ve often wished for a Babel fish. This ingenious invention, proposed by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, would enable anyone to understand what’s being said around them, no matter what the language.
While I’m waiting for reality to catch up with Adams’ imagination, I always attempt to learn a few basic phrases when I visit another country.
“Hello,” “thank you,” “goodbye,” and “another beer, please”– which quickly necessitates the question, “Where is the bathroom?”– will go a long way, baby. And no, speaking English loudly and slowly doesn’t count.
If you happen to be in a place where most tourists don’t bother with even the most rudimentary terms, attempting a few syllables of the local lingo may win you a friend for life. I learned five words of Croatian when I visited last year, and I’m still receiving e-mails inviting me back and sending me “sweet kisses.”
Of course, your efforts at grammatical goodwill may occasionally backfire.
I was once going through airport security in Prague, where I greeted the stern-faced official manning the metal detector with a friendly “dobry den!” (hello).
At least, I thought that’s what I said. Considering the guard’s unsmiling reply, I might have in fact implied that he was descended from an unholy coupling between his beloved mother and a goat.
As he continued to question me (in Czech), I tried to explain (in English) that I had exhausted my trusty supply of tour book phrases, as asking for “another beer, please” didn’t seem appropriate in this situation.
For my troubles, I was rewarded with a thorough “security check” and nearly missed my flight. There were one or two international gestures I could have summoned in reply, but it’s probably for the best that my hands were too full to indulge that impulse.
Invariably, however, I commit my worst faux pas when in France. That’s because I spent years learning (i.e., bludgeoning) the language and have long laboured under the mistaken impression that I have some idea of what I’m saying.
A few years ago, I was travelling around France with a driver named Bernard, who spoke very little English. One day, he told me how his father had helped escort Second World War Allied troops to safety in occupied France. “He must have been full of valour,” I respectfully replied in French.
Why, then, did Bernard turn to look at me with the wounded eyes of a puppy? As it transpired, the word valeur is very close to voleur, which means robber – and I had just called his father a thief.
On that same trip (as on every trip, actually), I found myself bellying up to local bars, chatting with the bartenders. “Parlez-vous Français?” they asked as they poured my wine.
“J’essaie de pratiquer la langue,” I’d tell them. “I’m trying to practise the language.” Only langue, someone explained on the last day of my tour doesn’t mean “language” in this case. It means tongue.
I had essentially propositioned every bartender I met across central France, telling them I wanted to practice my tongue. No wonder they were all so friendly. Although, in retrospect, I’m a bit insulted that none of them offered me a free drink.
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