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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