I don’t speak foreign languages; I speak food


I often lamented my struggles with picking up foreign languages.  I’m pretty sure I’d actually be fine at dong so if I bothered to try, but I’m pretty lazy so it just hasn’t happened too much.  Besides, I have managed to get by well enough most places I’ve visited (even Tokyo, though only one 15 minute conversation over 3 days was a strange experience) so I haven’t really felt a compelling need to get another language in my repertoire.  And then, sitting at the bar for dinner at my favorite Italian place the other night, I heard an explanation of my attitude that was way more eloquent than anything I ever would have thought of: “I don’t speak foreign languages; I speak food.

It turns out that I am not particularly hung up on having deep and meaningful conversations with folks as I travel.  I probably should, as it would expose a completely different side of the culture and destination.  But every time I find myself in a new destination with new language challenges I find that I survive.  Because apparently I speak food.  Take this example from my Hamburg trip a few weeks ago.  I was sitting in a Greek restaurant in Germany where a guy asked us a question in Italian and I managed to answer in French.  I’m even pretty sure that I got the answer right; he definitely understood what I was saying.

More importantly though, I also managed to order dinner just fine.  Just like I have pretty much everywhere I’ve been in the world.  I may not always get exactly what I want, but I get something that I can eat and that is the most important thing.

In Tokyo my food language skills were stressed a bit more, but I managed to get by quite fine based on the bills I accumulated for sushi.  I had many different ordering means available to me at the various places I dined.  At one there was a guy who spoke English outside who took my order and as I walked inside to sit down he just shouted it at the woman behind the corner.  There were a couple where they dug through the menus to find one in English.  There is the fact that I know a few of the fish I like by their Japanese name.  And then there is the all-powerful ability to point.

At my last meal – the nicest of the four sushi meals I had – I sat down at the counter and the chef asked if I spoke any Japanese.  I said no and he appeared somewhat disappointed but I quickly intimated that I would happily point to what I wanted.  A quick series of hand gestures later (I chose my seat based on proximity to the stuff I wanted to try) I had quite the spread in front of me.  And ordering o-toro for dessert earned me a smile and a nod of approval. But I never got past the couple words I know for sushi orders and a well placed arigato

Yes, I should really get better at one of the many languages I speak 10 words of and Spanish is probably the leading candidate on that front.  But in the meantime, I’ll continue to live my foreign experiences one meal at a time.  It has worked pretty well so far.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

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