We have visited 4 countries where we did not speak the language. Armed only with a pocket phrase book in each of these countries I didn’t give much thought to not speaking the language before we embarked on our trips. I felt no fear because of my linguistic ignorance before travelling or since for that matter. People are generally good, patient and helpful when another person is struggling, in distress or unable to communicate because of a language barrier. That has been my experience anyway, thankfully!
There have been some minor mishaps that have ensued because of the language gap while we were travelling. Some of the more vivid memories from our trips are products of misunderstandings. I am glad we are the type of people who are open to adventure and enjoy trying new things. Being open and adventurous helped us more than the pocket phrase book in a lot of exchanges.
The country where we stumbled over foreign words first was Italy. Probably not a coincidence, Italy was also our first trans Atlantic trip and a lot of the culture and customs were not known to us. Ignorance was not always bliss on this trip. Having our little phrase book did help us in a few (very few) situations. But when it came to reading a menu the little book tended to stay in pocket instead of being put to use.
Our first menu mix ups happened our first day in Rome. Both happened because of serious hunger and thirst. This day we woke extremely early due to the time change and walked a fair distance to catch a train to visit the Vatican Museum. After the train we walked again to our desired destination to wait, what seemed like forever, in an enormous line up to enter the museum. To add to our discomfort we were dressed to visit the Vatican so all legs and shoulders were covered and apparently Italy is hot in October when we visited. Jeans and hiking boots in flip-flops and shorts type weather (eek). The 3 cappuccino and little pastry offered at breakfast weren’t enough to get us to our next meal. We finally entered the Museum, hunger was put on the back burner, as we embarked on our journey through numerous halls filled with exquisite art and sculpture to arrive at the Sistine Chapel. This museum took us about 4 hours to visit so by the time we made it back out to the street we were ready to gnaw our arms off!
As luck would have it there was a small pizzeria across the street and a block up from the Museum. Outside were pictures of delicious looking little pizzas and giant mugs of frosty beer for what appeared to be a decent price. I swear I heard angels singing in my head when we spied the small restaurant. There was no time to consult the phrase book to translate the menu board, we were starving! So sitting right next to a photo of the pizza and beer lunch special we thought smiling, pointing to the photo and indicating by show of fingers how many of the little pizzas we would like would accomplish ordering lunch for us. It did accomplish just that: There were 3 of us and we received 3 large pizzas and 9 pints of beer! The special was 1 pizza to share and a beer for each at a table. We ordered 3 of them! It was a good thing we were hungry. Lesson: Don’t take the size of the photo literally and translate and be clear on the specials.
Having had a huge lunch we were not hungry for the rest of the day. But our feet did become weary although much cooler having found flip-flops and our throats in need of thirst quenching after a very busy day traversing most of the sites in Rome. So as the sun began to set over the Colosseum we decided to duck in to a cafe and grab some refreshment and an appetizer. This time there were no pictures on the menu board or menu for that matter. There also were no prices to be seen anywhere. That should have been our first clue something would get lost in translation! So the phrase book came out this time. Unfortunately the outcome was the polar opposite of what happened in the pizzeria earlier in the day. After ordering what we thought was a carafe of the house wine and an appetizer plate for 3 we received 1 small bottle of clearly home-brew wine and a martini glass filled with dried up carrot and celery sticks and what appeared to be 3 pickled onions….. FOR $30 EURO! Good thing we were still full from lunch.
A week later we took a day trip to Assisi. It was a crystal clear sunny day. We parked the rental car at the base of a very steep hill. This was the best parking for the Cathedral of Assisi which was what we came to see. The brick path from the parking was very wide and lined with little shops and cafes. We began our assent dressed in Cathedral viewing attire, all shoulders and legs covered. The weather was hot so it was more like a hike than a walk up the increasingly steep path. The sun began to beat down on our covered shoulders and our day packs began to feel laden with bowling balls. We needed gelato! About half way up we saw a gelato shop and it was unanimous we had to have some. There were numerous flavor choices for the cold tasty treat but it didn’t take long to make our decisions. Rob chose peach which he tried to communicate to the young woman serving us. He smiled at her sweetly, sweat dripping from his brow, and asked for “pesce”. This prompted her to double over laughing which prompted very confused and frustrated looks from us melting from the heat, not realizing Robs language blunder. When she finally pulled herself together she asked in perfect English, “so you would like fish flavor?”. Rob blushed and declined the fish clarifying in English he wanted peach (pesco in Italian) flavor. I ordered in English to avoid further confusion. She gave us an extra scoop each and sent us on our way with smiles all around.
A few years later we visited Argentina. We ate more different types of animals and animal parts than any other trip previous. That being said it was fertile ground for menu mix ups! On one outing in Salta we visited a busy barbecue restaurant. We had passed by the evening before and were drawn to it because of its giant windows to the street. Inside we could see lots of patrons and unknown animal meat over a huge caldron looking barbecue (parrilla in Spanish). We went back for dinner the next night.
It was much quieter when we arrived for dinner at 6pm, Argentines eat dinner at 8 or later. We had our pick for seating at 6 so we chose to be right beside the parrilla. We ordered the meat on the parrilla and found out it was chivo (goat). Goat is as popular as beef in this part of Argentina. Argentines love their proteins and so do we, so we dove into our chivo with gusto. Sadly, it was a tad bit dry and not very tasty which was disappointing given our expectations. We enjoyed the ambiance much more than the food in this restaurant! The next night we decided to eat dinner closer to our hotel. The restaurants near the hotel were all more fine dining than family and the pricing reflected that so we didn’t want to make another ordering mistake.
We looked at the specials posted outside one restaurant and decided the pricing and fare looked great. The restaurant was smaller than the previous night with no giant parrilla to be seen. We decided this was the one and entered and ordered almost right away. Rob from the menu and me from the menu board outside, daily special 2 please, which I thought was chicken. You would have thought I learned something from the Italy experiences, right? So our meals come out and mine does not look like chicken! So I inquire asking our waiter “Is this chicken?” in my best Latin American Spanish (not so good actually). He replies “No, chivo”. Goat, really? That is not what the menu board said.
Rob went outside to confirm daily special 2 on the menu board and found it had changed. Chicken was number 2 on the lunch menu and goat was number 2 for the dinner special. So goat for dinner, again. This meal was much better than last evening! I started out slow and finished my chivo with as much gusto as I started last nights meal with. I love goat when prepared so it’s not bone dry. It was so good! Our waiter looked surprised and relieved at my enthusiasm about the meal given my initial reaction when he delivered my meal. Keep an open mind about foods outside your comfort zone. It could just be a cooking technique you don’t like not the actual food.
Translation mix ups surrounding food and drink continued to arise in all of our travels, though thankfully less frequently than in Italy. Fish instead of Gelato, Goat instead of chicken, One beer 3 glasses instead of 3 beers no glasses, the list goes on. Because off all of these mix ups we have discovered foods we love, made new friends, learned language, had some serious laughs and made memories we love share when given the chance. Never let not knowing the language hold you back from visiting a place you want to see. Most people like to help others when they are vulnerable or in need. Keeping a smile on your face and a sense of adventure in your heart makes being lost in translation less intimidating and more fun when travelling. Carrying a lot of snacks and refreshment in your day pack will make it more fun to.
Here are a few more traveling families and their misadventures. If you have a story and language mishaps please share in the comments below.
Val from This Way To Paradise – Lost In Translation: How My Spanish Almost Caused Me To Starve To Death
Gabi from The Nomadic Family – God, Please Tell Me I Didn’t Just Say That – Everywhere, Globe
Tracey from Life Changing Year: Funniest Language Barrier Moments While Travelling!
Jamie from Great Big Scary World – Miscommunication: Naked Massages and Thinking I Am Going to Die