Friday, January 17, 2020

Traveling in Europe half a century ago

Inspired by the discovery that I really need subtitles now to follow German-language movies that I haven’t already memorized (I can still follow The Merry Widow just fine, but Generation War was another story) I’ve been reviewing German via programs and audiobooks for a couple of weeks. It seems to be working in that my comprehension is improving, but now there is a different kind of frustration, one I remember from earlier days: whatever foreign language I’ve most recently used, that’s what comes up when I reach for any foreign language. It’s like my brain has just two boxes, one labeled “English, aka the Real Stuff” and one labeled “Everything Else” which operates on the LIFO principal. I rediscovered this problem when the cleaning crew arrived while the First Reader had the flu. “Bitte gehen Sie nicht in das Schlafzimmer, mein Mann ist krank,” didn’t do a thing for them. I had to look up how to say “sick” in Spanish! I knew that much Spanish three weeks ago!

That kind of thing used to be hugely frustrating on European trips when I needed to switch languages frequently. And it has reminded me of the language techniques I found most useful in those days. So, here’s a compendium of how to survive while traveling around Europe – somewhat dated. Things change. My survival strategy was developed in the sixties and seventies, when World War II was still a vivid memory and the Iron Curtain was still solid. But let’s pretend you’re interested anyway:

1. When in France, speak French just long enough to make people realize that everybody will be much happier if they switch to English, because no matter how bad their English is, it won’t hurt their ears like your French accent.

2. In Germany, German works just fine, although you may have to beg people to slow down because their assumption is that you’re a native speaker who just happens to come from some distant region with a funny-sounding dialect.

3. Outside France and Germany, wave your hands and speak English. Then, having established that you yourself are not German, switch to German. Everybody over 40 understands you just fine.
3a. Do not try this in Crete. Just… don’t. The story is too long to tell here…
4. Don’t bother trying out your Russian in Hungary. Despite the fact that Russian had been mandatory in Hungarian schools for my entire lifetime, Hungarians were really good at not understanding Russian. The German Strategy works much better.
4a. If you do have even a few words of Hungarian, you can drive people crazy by using them. Because they are resigned to the fact that no foreigners ever, ever even attempt their language, and they can tell by looking that you’re not one of them. You must be a space alien!
5. Outside the larger towns in Yugoslavia (Yeah, I know. There is no more Yugoslavia. I told you this list is dated.) don’t bother with your carefully memorized “I don’t speak Serbo-Croatian.” The response is likely to be, “That’s fine, we don’t either,” followed by, “You must come from far away, like the other side of the mountain.” See German Strategy, above.

6. The western third of Romania is populated by ethnic Hungarians. Speaking Hungarian in Transylvania will get you the good will of the locals… and the unfriendly interest of the secret police.

7. In Italy, get your back against a wall before trying any conversation whatsoever. It won’t improve communications, but at least you won’t get your bottom pinched.

8. Do not under any circumstances respond to young men who follow you down the street calling, “Miss… Mademoiselle… Fräulein… Señorita…” and watching to see which language elicits a response.
8a. One exception to this rule: if you have a grenade and are not afraid to use it.
8b. A second exception: if you happen to be fluent in a truly obscure, non-European language, you can discourage pursuers by smiling sweetly at them and burying them in a torrent of Hindi, Japanese, Luo, or whatever comes to mind. In Paris I once drowned some importunate young men in Swahili. As they slouched away one of them commented in French, “She’s awfully tall for a Chinese.”


  1. OK, the comment “She’s awfully tall for a Chinese.” was funny!! Only you would breakdown the languages in such a manner! Great post!

  2. This is closely related to my previous point.Travel nice

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