'What did you say? I SAID WHAT DID YOU SAY?'
Whilst the English abroad may be very adventurous, travelling to different countries, sadly there’s one thing we’re noted for ... we’re generally not good at speaking foreign languages. Because English is the accepted international language and, despite the best of intentions, it’s so easy to turn to the menu pages with the Union Jack in the top corner.
Buying property abroad
I once visited the Spanish town of Torrevieja, which was then in the forefront of selling holiday home. We were a group of four – me, my wife, and a married couple who were also interested in buying abroad.
As we travelled around the various building sites coach parties of potential buyers would descend on the show home offices and there was almost a hysterical rush to buy. The plot maps would have red stickers stuck on them as people made [rash] commitments and you could see the others begin to panic: ‘If I don’t buy soon there will be nothing left!’
We enjoyed the three days [paid for by the developer] but declined to buy. We had been comfortably put up in a smart flat overlooking the Marina, and each night we tried a different restaurant. We had got so used to the universal English pages of the menu that it came as quite a shock to find ourselves in a restaurant where only Spanish was spoken.
Although we are criticising the English abroad and whilst we may not be good linguists we are creative thinkers. I asked my wife what she would like and she said beef. So, pointing at the menu and fixing the waiter in the eye, I said ‘Moo. Moo’ ‘Ah si’ he replied and wrote the order. Patricia wanted chicken so, pointing at the menu again, I said ‘Cluck. Cluck.’ By now he was smiling and getting into the mood. Ian wanted lamb [Baa. Baa] and I chose pork [Oink. Oink.]
The others diners were all enjoying this unexpected entertainment as you can imagine. Later as he came in with the first two plates he looked at us and said: ‘Moo’ and my wife took her meal, then he said ‘’Cluck’ and Patricia took her meal. This was repeated with the final two plates: ‘Baa’ and ‘Oink’. Luckily no one wanted fish!
Chinese New Year
We used to go regularly to Tenerife to a coastal village called Callao Salvaje. One New Year friends from Scotland visited and we said: ‘Let’s go to the Chinese tonight. The food is good and the staff very friendly.’
As we walked in we sensed a different mood. Instead of the usual calm, welcoming atmosphere there was a tension in the air. Waiters were rushing around, people were complaining about long waits for food, and some people were leaving even without ordering.
We sat and waited patiently and finally someone came to take our order ... but couldn’t speak English! We even wondered if we were in the right restaurant. We got a sheet of paper and carefully wrote down the numbers we wanted for starters, drew a line, then the number for the crispy duck, drew a line, then the numbers of the main course dishes. Thank goodness Chinese menus have all the dishes numbered!
Our friends were bemused by the chaos – people rushing around, anguished shouts from the kitchen, the head chef emerging waving a chopper! When we handed over the credit card to pay, the waiter looked at it or a moment then rushed out the front door of the restaurant. We hurried in pursuit as we didn't want anything to happen to our card. At the top of the road the waiter entered the other Chinese restaurant and handed over the card. He didn't know how to operate the card machine.
Only later did we learn that the normal staff had taken Chinese New Year off and imported a new crew for the evening - who didn't know the restaurant and couldn't speak English.
We do fortunately speak French, which has come in handy in Portugal. Until recently French was the language taught in schools there and we have had occasions to use French to be understood, it has also worked when communicating with people from Morocco.
However we do make the assumption that as the English abroad we have an expectation that others will understand us. If they don't we just have to speak louder and slower!
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