“Bonjour, monsieur.” I said to the counter man at Gare du Nord in Paris. “Deux billets, s’il vous plez, a sens, a Bruxelles.”
My traveling companion marveled at my “command” of French. I explained that I only knew enough key phrases to be polite and earn a smile of thanks instead of the well-practiced dirty look reserved for the “Ugly American.” Our two one-way tickets from Paris to Brussels in hand, we hopped the TGV and shot out of the French capital like a bullet for our 90-minute ride to the capital of the European Union.
When it comes to communicating in a different language, visitors are often mortified at the sound of a foreign tongue, losing all sense of place in trying to decipher the well-meaning "gibberish" flying their way.
Relax. After the welcome by the hotel desk clerk one of two simple questions will follow: do you have a reservation and/or how do you spell your last name. They might seek an opinion about the weather or the flight over if they sense you are conversant but otherwise nothing more than that. Tourists seem more comfortable and are sometimes treated better when they start the conversation instead of having it pulled from them – yes, we have a reservation and the last name is Johnson.
Locals and tourists alike do not expect to hold a conversation on global warming or to exchange views on the last election. At the same time a simple request for a last name at the front desk might as well be a request to quote the Pythagorean Theorem.
Still intimidated? Write it on a piece of paper and pass it across the counter with the credit card and a smile. They’ll get the hint, hand over the keys and point to the elevators. Next.
Nothing is ever fool proof. At a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan it took forever for me to figure out the extremely polite counter girl was simply asking me if I wanted my meal to go or dine in!
Any fast food worker in the world will ask this no-brainer but it temporarily threw me for a loop. That little question was not listed on the pictograms showing the various menu choices designed for the gaikokujin (foreigners) that even the Japanese have grown to use and love.
My own advice kicked in after the third time she’d asked the question and we both laughed over the big “D’ohhh!” Pointing at the floor, the universal sign for “here” I took my hard-earned meal upstairs to an empty table overlooking the street and enjoyed a very good chicken dinner in Japan.
Every cab driver, waiter and retail clerk in town will know exactly where your pigeon French, Mandarin, Afrikaans or Arabic came from - the back of a guide book. They will love and thank you just the same for going at least that far in - wait for it - helping them to do their jobs and keep each of you on your respective way. In the time it takes an overseas flight to make the crossing at least one flight attendant on board can help you practice getting and understanding directions to the Kremlin.
That’s what you’re going to Moscow for anyway, right?