It’s pretty easy to feel like an asshole when travelling: no matter how lightly you pack, you’re always carrying too much with you, hitting people waiting for the bus with your backpack as you try in vain to orient yourself in the winding streets of a European city. You don’t know the intricacies of politeness in the place you’re visiting, so inevitably you tuck in before your host, accidentally eat the entire small dish of condiments meant to be shared with the table and choke on your shot of Schnapps. However, often the biggest hurdle to seamless travelling—the kind of travelling where you really feel like you can “pass”—is language. You probably don’t speak it, and yet you’re in a situation where you sometimes need to ask questions.
Of course, the “you” or “we” that I’m speaking of here are that strange breed of mostly monolingual English speakers. We’ve grown up in predominantly English-speaking countries, perhaps picked up a few words of another tongue in our elementary and secondary schooling, but we’re essentially linguistic dunces. It’s embarrassing. Travel to any non-English speaking country and you’ll find that many, if not most, people under the age of 50 speak multiple languages, often English and sometimes as many as four or five others. Even tiny kids can switch back and forth, flipping through their linguistic arsenal until they find one that breaks through the blank stare of incomprehension. We (the mono-English) have the greatest access to others in that more people on the earth speak English than any other language, and yet we struggle through our embarrassment and ignorance to communicate.
Since British gents (read: monolingual, pasty, overly-educated young men) have been going on Grand Tours of the Continent, phrase books have been the biggest help in overcoming one’s assoholic monolingualism. Before Berlitz, the British gentleman couldn’t be guaranteed his sea-view room. But after, well, hopefully the phrase-book set out a helpful point/counterpoint to ensure one could talk a hotelier around to meeting one’s demands… So, let’s say, then, that phrasebooks firstly help in overcoming the disability of monolingualism, the asshole bit remains up to the speaker.
When you can’t decipher the signs saying “Washrooms are for Customers Only!” and are yelled at in Greek by a burly gentleman wielding a meat cleaver, you can start to wonder if it would be better to just pee under a tree in the park than to make an attempt to communicate. I’ve certainly made the former choice on at least one occasion (I mean, sometimes you just HAVE to go). But, more often, you can’t get around the necessity to talk to people, preferably those not handling weaponry.
One of the things I’ve found most helpful when traveling is a willingness to give up on English. Even though many people have some English, communication can often happen more easily when an English-speaker doesn’t begin from that assumption. English is a wall we hide behind. We’ll speak more slowly, more loudly and strip our speech down to verbs and pronouns before we’ll give up our own linguistic dominance.
But, it can be liberating to be openly dumb. Rather than trying to pretend you know what you’re doing, sometimes the best approach is to admit you have no idea how to say what you want to say, but then to try anyway. Here’s where the phrasebook is exceptional, since it lays out precisely what you are trying to say, usually phonetically. Rather than just pointing to the sentence in the book (a last ditch move), I’ve had the best communication experiences when I’ve tried to say it out loud, several times over, sometimes trying different intonations. I’ve had my interlocutors in stitches with my attempts. In Tampere, Finland, the woman at the ticket desk of the train station was nearly crying because of my attempts to pronounce the name of the town I wanted to go to and the ticket class I thought I wanted (I’m still not sure what the joke was, but she repeated it to several colleagues). In Dubrovnik, our host at a home-stay was absolutely delighted when we greeted her with “dobar dan,” and then laughed when we told her “that’s all we know!” (Which, incidentally, is not a phrase you should learn from Google translate.) She brought us cake later that evening, which could be coincidental, but was lovely nonetheless. Luckily, we also knew how to say, “hvala” (thank you), which sent her into giggles again.
As monolingual English speakers living on a huge, nearly monolingual continent, we’re embarrassed to stumble in our speech. We’re not used to speaking in other languages, but more than that, we’re not used to having to try. For me, it’s a weird feeling not to be able to communicate using my usual sarcasm, quips or deadpan humour. To simply repeat phrases out of a book makes me highly aware of the nuances I usually add to even these every day exchanges; it feels vaguely robotic to be simply able to read and repeat, and to require short or one word responses from my interlocutor. But, it’s a nice gesture to try and speak to someone in their own language, and the worst they’re going to say (barring any incidents with a meat cleaver) is “pardon me?” And you try again.
Also, and importantly, I’d rather sound like a Speak ‘n’ Spell than reinforce the stereotype of the angry and brash American tourist (and here all loud, demanding English speakers stand in for “Americans”), which is sorely reinforced all the time. For instance, in a small French restaurant last summer, a couple of American tourists barrelled in, demanding a table and saying they had a reservation. The host (also the owner and server in the tiny place), who didn’t speak much English, if any at all, simply asked them, “nom?” Getting more and more irate, the husband kept repeating, “We have a RESERVATION!,” raising his voice each time. The host looked bewildered. Finally, a guest sitting next to the American man said, “She’s asking for your name.” He looked back to the host blankly, gave his name and they were seated, though I’m not sure why they bothered to stay, given that it seemed almost inevitable that the chef would spit in their soup after that display.
When travelling is it better to seem an asshole or an idiot? Well, the former is likely to get you a mediocre-at-best dinner in a rave-reviewed restaurant, while the latter can lead to cake. You decide.