Tuesday, 18 October 2011

On getting by

I like to think I can get by in a number of languages, and I always like to at least try to say a few words in the language of the country that I'm visiting. I'm ashamed to say that other than Skol, I failed on that one in Sweden, but most of the time I'm pretty good.

But the more I travel, the more I realise that all I do is get by. I manage, I cope. I can order a drink and a meal, I can buy stuff in shops, and - on a good day - I can ask for, and sometimes even understand, directions. But beyond that I struggle. Responses often floor me, and if I'm not expecting to be spoken to, my ear takes far too long to tune in to what's been said, and by then it's too late for a response. Witness the poor man at the bus stop this morning who only asked me where I was from, but I didn't realise until 10 minutes later and it seemed a bit much to seek him back out and say, I'm from Scotland, you know!

Therefore, while day to day transactions can take place, conversations aren't really an option. You need two people exchanging comments, thoughts and ideas for a good conversation - can I have a glass of red wine and how much does it cost, plus a fair amount of miming doesn't really cut it. The ideal, and probably quite amusing, arrangement might be to find a local who wants to practise their English - they could speak English, I could speak Italian, neither of us would really understand, but it would be great fun.

My favourite phrase of this holiday as I force myself to try out my Italian is, Como se dice in Italiano? Actually, I lie. My favourite phrase of the holiday is un bicchiere di vino bianco, per favore. But the Come se dice one comes a close second, ok after un cafe espresso, per favore.

I do try to speak Italian as much as possible - or, at least to use Italian words and phrases, a lot of pointing and the occasional bit of miming. Usually it's just when I'm feeling tired or vulnerable, or need absolute accuracy, that I resort to English in totality.

I've been immensely helped in this, not just on this holiday but over the years, but the collection of phrase books I've amassed. They really are invaluable. But I don't know if you've ever noticed what fun they can be. All phrase books have a similar layout - essentials, meeting and greeting, getting around, eating, sightseeing, booking a room, and - my personal favourite - making friends. Yes, the compilers of phrase books are obsessed with introducing you to foreigners, completely forgetting the fact, that as noted above, once introduced you're not exactly going to be able to entertain with sparkling wit and conversation. But then a closer look at the choice of phrases might help to explain - hello, are you on your own, my wife and I would like you to join us - ok. I swear phrase books are compiled by frustrated swingers - don't believe me, pick up any phrase book and have a look!!

The other thing that phrasebooks seem to be be particularly interested in is helping you get your hair cut wherever you are in the world. The Berlitz compilers do their best to ensure that wherever you go, you'll be able to ask for a short back and sides and get just that. I'm not sure why tourists need to know how to get their hair cut as an emergency, but there you are. Mind you, if you want anything specific or a bit more unusual, you'll need to be creative with your phrase book use - no pictures allowed, create your haircut using only the phrases to be found in the pages of Berlitz - numero due tutto?  a forma ciotola? un perm del barboncino?

Ciao bella - off to find the perfect trattoria. Anyone wanting to know what I actually did today will need to tune in later...

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