Getting Cozy with the Language Barrier

In Aurora, Illinois, I agreed to have breakfast with the winners of a “funniest story in my travels” contest before I gave my talk.

When I’m on a lecture tour, to be honest, I am focused on the big groups. (And I am amazed at how talking to a 500 people at once can be less demanding of my energy than talking to individuals before or after a talk.) Climbing down the stairs that morning, I went into the breakfast room a little tired and feeling sorry for myself.

The dozen travelers assembled were a delight and I thoroughly enjoyed the breakfast meeting I was not looking forward to. Conversation thrived as the well-traveled gang shared favorite memories of past trips — many were the results of little mishaps, generally caused by the language barrier. Here are my two favorite stories among the winners:

Dear Rick,

On my first trip to Paris several years ago, I was exploring on my own and decided to visit the Musée D’Orsay. I had a museum pass, but the line to get into the museum was still very long. People were standing very close together outside, waiting to enter.

It was a chilly spring day, and I had my left hand holding on to my shoulder bag, while my right hand was tucked into my coat pocket. Suddenly, I felt a gentle touch on my right arm; I turned my head and saw a well-dressed, nice-looking older woman standing next to me. She had linked her left arm through my right arm, and she was smiling happily, looking off to our right.

I thought, “Don’t be an Ugly American and make a scene! She’s not doing any harm, and maybe this is just something they do in France to be friendly. Chill out, relax, and see what happens.”

We stood in line together peacefully for about ten minutes, until the line finally started to move. At that point she glanced at my face and her expression turned to one of absolute horror. She pulled her arm away from mine, turned around and ran away.

I guess she must have gotten separated from her original companion, and I never did see her again, but I was very proud of myself for having kept my “savoir faire” that day.

Thanks for reading my story! Maria C, Oak Park IL

Dear Rick,

My husband and I booked a one-week hotel package at the beach in Italy. We experienced the worst July week at the Adriatic Sea in decades: it rained the whole week. My husband and I had caught a cold and sore throat which were getting worse. My husband decided to buy some Contac (US cold remedy). Being a foreign language teacher, I impressed on him to pronounce the vowels the Italian way (“kohn talk”). He came back and said, yes, he found some.

Before going to bed, I asked him for the “Contac” when I pulled two flat boxes out of the paper bag it was clear that he did not buy “Contac.” The Italian label on the boxes was CONTACTO D’AMORE. He had purchased prophylactics.

Now things became clear to my husband. The (English) conversation in the pharmacy had been difficult. The person had asked him if he wanted 2 or 4. My husband said “Give me 4, my wife has a cold too.” He recalled the clerk giving him a really puzzled look.

Since the product was fairly pricey and my husband was reluctant to return it, I went to the pharmacy and explained the whole thing again. The clerk politely asked me to wait and went to the back of the store. There was a conversation in a low voice and then muffled laughter from the pharmacy staff.

Happy travels, Petra T, Aurora, Il.


9 Replies to “Getting Cozy with the Language Barrier”

  1. I often return from a trip and watch Rick’s DVDs and then recognize someone I met on my travels. Esther in Gimmelwald I saw on DVD when I got home. A desk clerk at Hotel Speronari in Milan was another. What fun. Fatima in Bacharach I knew about in advance from Rick’s “Postcards” book. She was very nice and very much like he described. Thanks Rick for making my trips an adventure to remember.

  2. Traveling and language can be a barrier, If I dont understand, I keep on smiling and hope we get through to each other. So many Funny Stories.

  3. Standing in line to order at a bar in Amsterdam. A man who I assume was African orders his drink in French. The Dutch barmaid, who understood him perfectly said, “We don’t speak French here. You can order in English.” The man asks, “Why?” She replies, “Because this is not France!” He says, “Well it’s not England either!” Exasperated, she hands him his drink and rolls her eyes.

  4. 2nd story is hilarious. Reminds me of my High School German Teacher’s own experience at the home of friends in Germany. The wife had made a nice cake – and when asked how he liked it, and wanted to say something like “…its wonderful – so fresh and no preservatives”. He got funny looks as the word used for what he thought was “preservatives” was really the modern German word for prophylactics! He only realized what he said much later and had to laugh himself! Having European parents and extended family, I have heard many great “language” stories! Thanks for sharing these too Rick!

  5. I too am recovering from a BAD head cold, and reading the two stories made me guffaw – and forget my head cold (a gift from my g’kids in Tacoma area). My wife says I sound really stupid trying to converse with “other language” folks, but that is because she speaks french like a real french person whereas I speak most languages like an idiot.

  6. How embarrassing, esp. the prophylactics number! I’m no stranger to language barrier incidents – I once told a whole group of German university students that one of the dangers of living in my home country, Australia, is because there’s “a big mistake in our skies” (i.e. hole in the Ozone layer)….

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