If I’m being really ambitious I can claim to be trilingual. I have a firm grasp of one language (hopefully you’ll agree it’s English) and a passable conversational grasp of the others- Mandarin and Cantonese. Much to a certain someone’s amusement, conversations in my family are a mish-mash of the three languages in a strange symphony of accents. You might think that this, combined with my love of travel means I have quite the knack for picking up languages but you would be wrong. Any German or Japanese I learnt during high school has deserted me; I could barely order a beer on our recent weekend in Nuremberg and let’s face it, my Japanese is sadly now limited to types of sushi.
We attempted to learn Spanish before our trip to Mexico and Cuba but that plan was swiftly abandoned after only 2 lessons from a ‘Learn Spanish’ CD. There were some accusatory conversations over who was practising the phrases too loudly and therefore making it hard for the other to hear the CD; we stopped for the sake of our relationship. We did pick up some basics by the end of our month long jaunt but that wasn’t before some taxi-ordering difficulties in Havana, and that time in Mexico City when our ‘enchilada’ was not rolled and covered in mole as expected but tacos filled with the spiciest of porks. But when it really came to haunt me was during a long weekend in Barcelona when all my orders of ‘te con leche’ resulted in cups of scalding hot milk with tea bags in them. I’m sure we can all agree that milk is not great for brewing tea.
Unfortunately even when I do know the language I still have those lost in translation moments. The first time I visited Hong Kong I was excited to be able to practise my Cantonese but boy oh boy was my colloquial jibber jabber completely out of its depth. They locals spoke too quickly, their tone and intonation was slightly different, and they didn’t have the patience for my stumbling during the lunch time rush. Even when I could get the words out I was stumped by the menus as my knowledge of Chinese characters doesn’t extend further than numbers. All this basically resulted in many bowls of noodles with beef tendons and unwanted intestines, served with a side of pity for ‘that girl who’s a bit slow’.
But fear not those who are also linguistically challenged, a certain someone and I have come across something we think is fairly universal… are you ready? Drum roll please….
The international sign for ‘can I have the bill/cheque please’.
Yep, I’m sure you’ve all done it before; left hand flat, palm facing upwards, right hand pretending to hold a pen and scribbling with it. A quick signal to the waiter to catch his eye, proceed with the sign and before you know it your bill is at the table without so much as a stutter. So far it has worked in almost every country we’ve set foot in from America to Mexico, to France, to Spain… but like all good rules, we’ve also found that one exception that proves it…
It was in the Philippines where our seemingly fail-proof technique was met with slightly confused looks. Their sign is less cheque signing and more credit card waving so perhaps they’re just ahead of the times? But in the meantime, a 90% success rate is enough for me to continue scribbling on my left hand with my imaginary pen no matter how silly it looks!