(Photo Credit: Greg Kunstler)
As I jumped into the back of a cab in Athens on my recent trip, I realized my predicament. I wanted to go to my hotel on Michalakopoulou Street but had no idea how to pronounce it properly. So I just let the vowels cascade out of my mouth, with all the intelligibility of a gagging codfish.
The driver just stared blankly at me in his rear view mirror for a moment, drove me to the other side of town, and marked the end of the trip with a smile and some Greek mutterings. "Your face amuses me, so I'll only rip you off by 10 euros," he seemed to say, before depositing me in front of a lamp store.
Over the years I've concluded that half the fun of traveling is embarrassing myself in foreign languages. Without linguistic mix-ups, I would perhaps never have tasted chicken-heart pizza in Brazil nor entered into a wager with a one-armed pool player from Italy (he beat me, if you must know).
But there are times when all you want is to be understood, so here are five tips and tricks that have served me well.
1. It's worth knowing some basics: English has long dominated global pop culture, but tragically, no number of international reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air can teach the world to speak like Geoffrey the butler. Take it from someone who learned to order a beer in 12 languages: There are some words that you'll want to know how to say. Brush up on some basics in the plane and you'll be rewarded by better comprehension and good vibes from locals who see you making an effort.
2. Pick up airport brochures ... all of them: They may seem like marketing propaganda, but tourist brochures can be the Rosetta Stones of the modern traveler. Because they are usually printed in multiple languages you can learn how to say "commuter bus to Berlin" or "museum of poorly crafted celebrity waxworks" in the native tongue before you've even left the airport. Keep them handy throughout the trip for when you need to ask for directions to your favorite tourist trap.
3. Get an app for that: A Star Trek-style universal translator ranks high on my list of fictional tech that should have been invented by now, somewhere between hoverboards and lightsabers. Sadly, scientists are too busy creating mobile apps instead. There are too many to list, but I like iTranslate, which can convert text in more than 80 languages and has a premium option for voice translation. There are downsides to the technology: excessive smartphone use can take the fun out of your vacation, cost a fortune in roaming charges, make you vulnerable to pickpockets, and leave you high and dry when the battery runs out.
4. Pack a picture book: One of my favorite low-tech communication solutions is the image dictionary. Passport-sized best-sellers such as Point It and The Wordless Travel Book contain hundreds of pictures of useful things -- from trains to toilet rolls -- grouped into traveler-friendly categories such as transportation or first aid. Want to order a meat-free meal? Flip to the "veggies" section. Need to buy livestock? Head to the poultry market with a photo of a chicken. Whipping out a picture book when you want to be understood may make you feel silly at first, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
5. Be respectful: Tourists typically fall into two categories: there are the humble, thoughtful ones, and there's Borat. If communication breaks down between you and a local, remember you're a guest in their country. Don't allow frustration to turn into rudeness, and remember that repeating something in a louder voice doesn't make it more understandable. Perhaps there's someone nearby who can help translate -- and if not, let good humor be your guide. Chicken-heart pizza isn't as bad as it sounds.
Travelzoo Tip: Find a vacation deal at Travelzoo, then start brushing up on your foreign-language skills.
-- Greg Kunstler is a producer at Travelzoo, based in Toronto. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.