Monday, April 21, 2014


My family used to gather once a year in Colorado and ski for a week. We always snagged copies of the New York Times to keep up with the events of the world and to broaden our minds. Our reunion in 1994 was memorable chiefly because we can still make ourselves laugh at what we found in the paper one morning:
Language primers and phrase books for travelers can be an odd introduction to a foreign country. Blithely insensitive to the subtleties of polite conversation, these tiny manuals re-enforce the xenophobic notion that all foreign travel is rife with unpleasure and mishap. Sometimes the source of this unpleasure and mishap is unspecified -- the reader of "Teach Yourself Catalan," for instance, can only wonder what dire circumstances will require the use of the phrase
I am prepared to raffle the goat.
 Over the years we have used the phrase among ourselves whenever we spend time together. It could have been written by P.J. O'Rourke but it wasn't.

I was always leery of using phrasebooks on any of my foreign travels. I knew I could spit out the phrase as written and maybe even manage the pronunciation well enough but I always knew what came next would be a burst of unintelligible gibberish and it's not like I speak gibberish. That's a totally foreign language and there is no phrasebook.

There's a universal language though. On a long ago cruise to Cabo, my captain used to row ashore and wheedle gasoline and water out of stones. I couldn't do it even though I tried. Some things take a woman's touch, on a beach, under a blazing sun, in front of God and everybody. Oh, she would stand there with that phrasebook clutched in her hands and mangle the Spanish until the men were forced to let her have 10 gallons of gas and 50 gallons of potable water. I could see again how Cortez won a continent... Just saying.

Still and all, they wouldn't have given it to me and they charged nothing at all for it.


Buck said...

Once again, another great link. I don't believe I ever bought a phrase book but I did have a Japanese - English dictionary that I rarely used... mainly coz The Second Mrs. Pennington (my girlfriend/intended at the time of my third assignment to Nippon) was fluent in Nipponese. That was kinda like having my very own live-in translator.

Phrase books were really needed in Europe. It seemed like everyone spoke English on "the continent" during the early '80s.

Buck said...

were = weren't. I'm not fully caffeinated yet.

HMS Defiant said...

Without being an ugly American, I found that I could make myself understood well enough all over the world in English and French. I join my father and sister-in-law though in imagining running into some one overseas and the only language we'll have in common is conversational Latin. I've never seen it though. Still, it would be interesting...