Thursday 23 January 2020


So for no good reason whatsoever I find myself looking through our old travel guides and phrasebooks, wondering how it was we ever used them to ask for food and drink on our family holidays and to see if they held the key to why our holidays were so ghastly most of the time.

Tutto Inglese, our reverse-engineered Italian dictionary/phrasebook, suggests some possible answers. Quale whisky dobbiamo comperare? (Which whisky shall we buy?) starts off well, but soon enough, dissent appears - Voi un caffè? No grazie, ne ho appena bevuto uno (Would you like a cup of coffee? No thank you, I have just had one) followed by an attempt at finding common ground - Prenderò del vino bianco (I'll have some white wine) which is snarkily rebuffed - C'è della birra nel frigorifero - (There's some beer in the fridge) and a pall descends. This is followed by a brief, gently surreal, passage:

Terry è in il giardino - Terry is in the garden
Sta suonando le chitarra - He is playing the guitar
La balena azzura è una specie in via d'estinzione - The blue whale is an endangered species

Before it's back to the passive-aggressive needling - Sto mangiando un panino (I'm having a sandwich) - Quest' uomo è noioso (This man is boring) until Ha battuto la testa (She banged her head) and the whole sorry episode ends. Well, yes. We always end up speaking broken English when in Italy. Perhaps this is why.

Germany, then. They have wine, they have beer, they make no secret of it. We can get a drink. But Fodor's Germany (dating back to the mid-90's, it has to be said) merely hits us up with a combo of Glühwein (which it translates as mulled claret) and Eierlikör (egg liquor) before giving us a minatory Alkoholfrei at the start of the beer section, followed by something called Radlermaß, which is light beer and lemonade, a shandy, something a child could drink.Schnapps? The wines of the Mosel? Not there. Clearly Fodor is writing for an apprehensive American audience, so what do I expect? Especially when Ich bin Diabetiker (I am a diabetic) leaps off the page, pursued by Ich kann...nicht essen (I cannot eat) and Ich bin krank (I am ill/sick).The air is filled with melancholy.

All right, it's not much fun, Germany, whatever language you speak, maybe there's something in that, but in our household literature even France - France, for God's sake, where we can actually speak some French - comes off badly courtesy of our Collins French dictionary and grammar. Try this for a typical sequence:

Vous n'avez pas d'œufs? - Have you no eggs?
Donnez-moi du sucre - Give me some sugar
Il a ajouté du sucre - He added sugar to it
Il a tout gâté - He has spoiled everything
Il ne boit ni ne fume - He neither drinks nor smokes

In France, possibly in Marseille, this is meant to be happening. Or Burgundy, the home of French gastronomy. Incredibly, the alienation has set in even before we have left England.

It's only an ancient Collins Spanish grammar + lessons which does anything to lighten the mood. Señora, celebro la ocasión que me proporciona el gusto de conocerla (Madam, I am glad the occasion affords me the pleasure of meeting you) it beams out at one point; chasing this with a breezy A mi, tráigame un poco de arroz con pollo y una botella de vino tinto (Bring me some chicken with rice and a bottle of red wine), which is presumably why the speaker is with the Señora in the first place. She ripostes with a real faceful of greed: Yo deseo un plato de sopa, un filete de ternera con legumbres y patatas fritas, before continuing with un plato de pescado y ensalada de lechuga y tomate (I want a bowl of soup, a veal cutlet with vegetables and fried potatoes, a dish of fish and a lettuce and tomato salad). What a woman!

Generalmente bebo un vaso de vino y an vaso de agua (Generally I drink a glass of wine and a glass of water) her companion avers, but to no purpose, because what do you know, but Después de esta suculenta cena, ¿no le parece que debemos dar un paseo? (After this succulent supper do you not think that we ought to go for a walk?). This is what a phrasebook should be full of: food, drink and companionship. In a foreign language.

It's only when I turn the page that I realise that things aren't as sociable as I once thought. ¿Realiza usted muchas transacciones comerciales con Centro América? (Do you do much business with Central America?) is what's happening, followed by ¿Tiene usted que madar las mercancías en seguida? (Do you have to ship the merchandise immediately?). Yes. It relocates the action at once to Mexico, with you, the speaker, caught up in some kind of terrifying drug cartel, lethally wined and dined before being taken for a walk outside. How can this be happening? It was the only phrasebook which had any warmth, any sense of a life beyond these shores. It was the only one with charm. And yet this is where you are. And yes - I'm not making this up - Estaba en el parque cuando el hobre se pegó el tiro (I was in the park when the man shot himself) is how it ends. Where you're talking a walk after dinner. This very park.

PK, for what it's worth, has his holidays in Devon.


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