Travelling in a country where you don’t speak the language
is the only way to have a real holiday.
Language is my life. I earn a living by writing. Words are
important to me. And it’s very difficult
to let go of that, but I had no choice. And then I started to enjoy it.
The ATM is like a word puzzle of which you don’t understand
the main point. The machine keeps spitting out your card as the grumbling queue
grows longer behind you. You skulk off eventually without money, determined to
try your luck again later. Menus
anywhere except in tourist traps are in Italian only. And why shouldn’t they
be? It is Italy after all.
But the menus were the least of our problems. I mean, show
me a person on this earth who doesn’t know what pizza and pasta mean. But you can only eat so much of those two.
I ended up on more than one occasion pointing at something
on a menu without having any idea what was going to arrive from the kitchen. It makes you feel as if you’re living on the
edge. My luck was in – the most exotic thing that made its way to my table was
minced wild boar (chingiale) on something I assumed was couscous. But the one
thing I learnt very quickly was to ask for ‘vino rosso’. Once that had arrived
at your table, the rest was detail.
Other useful phrases
were ‘per favore’ (please) and ‘prego’. The last one can substitute for
anything you need it to mean as long as it is accompanied by a smile.
Bill Bryson was right. If you are in a country where you
don’t speak the language, you are reduced to being a five-year-old again. You
can’t read and you can’t explain what you want. Everything baffles you and no
one pays you much attention.
Nothing really matters
No one knows you. No one cares if you’re wearing the same clothes
as yesterday. You can make a fool of
yourself anywhere and it will never come back to haunt you. Not one of the
people on the streets will ever see you again. You pull on the door you’re
supposed to be pushing. You insert your train ticket the wrong way round into
the machine. You can’t work out the bus timetable. You don’t understand any
announcements or information sheets in museums and churches. And none of it
Because you don’t need language to be absolutely overawed by
the Pantheon, by Pompeii, by paintings, statues and priceless treasures tucked
away in little forgotten streets. In a minor church round the corner from our
apartment was a painting by Caravaggio. I mean, how many of you have ever heard
of the Santa Maria in Valicella? I certainly hadn’t.
You don’t need words to sit on a piazza in Tarquinia or
Anacapri watching the passing parade, the cobblestones, the medieval towers and
the setting sun over the Mediterranean. I was winked at by a Franciscan monk.
At my age I have to take my pleasures where I can.
The Italians are extraordinarily patient with tourists. Not
one person was rude or impatient with us.
Often just a pinched facial
expression would make people point you to the toilet. But do count your change.
And never, ever take a taxi in Grosseto or Sorrento. Walk, even if it kills you
or if you’re carrying all your luggage. Unless you enjoy paying R150 for less
than a kilometre.
And no, phrase books don’t help at all. What’s the point of
rote learning phrases if you don’t understand the answers? What’s more, you
don’t have any idea what you’re really saying. You might think you’re asking
the way to the nearest place where you can buy a bus ticket, but actually
you’re asking,” Do you like the colour of my panties?’ or “Does your mother
know where you are?”
If you haven’t been to Italy, sell your possessions, go into
debt, take unpaid leave. Go, just go. Do it now. You will not regret it. Take
my word for it. Prego.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24)