How to Have A Perfect* European Vacation, Part III (*Nothing is perfect)

Foreign LanguageI cannot end this series on the memory-making misadventures of foreign travel without mentioning the perils of trying to speak in a foreign language. Miscommunication, as Shakespeare and Sheridan famously proved, is the heart of humor. 

Not that Americans often risk speaking in a foreign language. We’re no good at languages, which isn’t entirely our fault. For one thing, English is the closest thing there is to a universal language; and it’s all too easy, when things get sticky, to revert to English. Several years ago, having brushed up on my German, I made up my mind to speak nothing but German in Austria. So in Vienna, searching for Michaelerkirche, a beautiful church with a crypt where you can view the mummified remains of wealthy burghers buried in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I stopped an older, well-educated-looking man on the street and asked directions—in perfect German, I thought. The man, thinking to be kind I suppose, answered me in English. But I persevered, and we had a lovely conversation, he (an Austrian) speaking English and I (an American) speaking German.

There’s a second strike against us as well. Like Australians, we Americans are isolated on a large, mainly English-speaking continent. With apologies to the ranks of long-suffering language professors, it is possible—even likely—to complete three years of a language in high school and two more in college, with respectable grades, without actually being able to say anything. Of this I am proof.

After spending a semester during college at the University of Freiburg in Germany’s Black Forest, however, I came down with the language bug. Once home (dreaming of myself as a polyglot) I purchased a bunch of those pop-in-your-DVD-player language tapes. The result is that I can now speak Spanish, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Chinese—not fluently, of course, but well enough to get myself into trouble. 

PopeIn An Essay on Criticism (1709), Alexander Pope said: A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again. 

Pope was right. In my German class in Freiburg, we were given a phrase book (I still have it) which included such enigmatic sentences as, “I regretfully decline your proposal of marriage,” and “Perhaps a man’s cut would suit you better.” Did our professor think it likely that we would get a proposal of marriage in four-months’ time? And to whom (man or woman) could the last sentence ever be appropriately spoken?  

Like phrase books, language DVDs have their limitations. What if you arrive at the train terminal in Oslo, for example, and say (as you were taught), “I would like to buy a ticket to Bergen,” and the ticket master does not reply—as the DVD promised he would—”One way or round trip. First or second class?” What if the menu in a village in rural France offers, not the dishes you carefully memorized, but the breast of a “small flying thing.” What sort of small flying thing, you want to ask—pigeon? guinea fowl? parakeet? bat?—but you have no words for that.  

Once, in a remote hotel in Slovakia, the waitress tried gamely, in her limited German, to explain the set dinner menu. We established that the main course was a smallish, four-footed animal but not beef, pork, or lamb. Finally, in desperation, the waitress backed up, lowered her head, made “horns” with her fingers and charged the table. Goat? We’ll never know for sure. But at least she tried.

That’s what I hope foreigners will decide about me: at least she tried. Because under pressure, it’s all too easy to mix up similar words and forget such essentials as verb tense and reflexives. In Germany I assured a waiter once that my husband and I taste very good indeed. Trying to help a non-meat-eating friend in China, I explained, “She’s a vegetable.” In Hungary I asked a shop assistant, “Can I help you?” 

Recent business trips to China have made me feel better about myself. Like the United States, China is a large, isolated country; and outside the tourist areas, few people speak English. But they try. Our lavish breakfast buffet in Guangdong Province included “Steamed Chicken Paws.” A snack counter in a small airport in central China advertised “Presently Smashed Coffee.” And in a wonderful museum of history in Beijing, we were helpfully instructed us to “turn left in 300 inches.” Who knew we would need a tape measure?  

Every one of these mix-ups is a treasured memory. Truly, I’d rather risk sounding witless than insulate myself in a tour group of fellow Americans. My dream is to find myself in some remote place where I have to dredge up the few words I know in Polish, even if it’s only, “Czy mówisz po angielsku?” Can you speak English?

How to Have the Perfect* European Vacation, Part II (*Nothing is Perfect)

Last week I told you about my personal philosophy of travel: no mishaps, no memories. After several decades of foreign travel, I’ve realized that memories, those experiences that stay with you long after the trip has ended—the things you relate when people say, “So, tell me about your trip”—are never the things that go right. We remember the things that go wrong.

            Now, I didn’t always think this way. When my sons were twelve and fifteen, I planned a family trip to England. No more wasting time languishing on the beaches of Florida for the Berry family. Now, I naively imagined, we would experience as a family the wonders of ancient Stonehenge, the Tower of London, Stratford-on-Avon, and Ironbridge Gorge (the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution). The eyes of my young offspring would be opened to the rich history and culture of the Old World, and the once-dry pages of their history textbooks would miraculously spring to life.

            Traveling with children of any age, of course, predisposes you to disaster. But as yet unaware of the positive virtue of mishaps, I planned a trip that would be perfect in every way. Since the spring weather in England is unpredictable, I kitted us out with warm wool sweaters, waterproof macs, and matching Goretex boots. Nothing would stand in the way of our walk through history. And I mapped out an itinerary that kept us hopping—the best of the best—covering the panoply of English history from the Queen Boadicea to Winston Churchill. Each boy was given a disposable camera to capture for himself images that would be cherished reminders of his personal awakening to the world beyond our shores.

            The trip began on a doubtful note. Following Rick Steves’ method of conquering jet lag by getting plenty of sunshine and activity on your first day, I had scheduled one of the Hop-On-Hop-Off tours of London in the morning, followed by lunch in Covent Garden, a walking tour of Notting Hill, and dinner at The Cheshire Cheese, the favorite pub of Dr. Samuel Johnson. (Did you know there are two pubs in London called The Cheshire Cheese? I didn’t, but that’s another story.) A bit too optimistic, you’re thinking? In reality the day turned out to be a kind of forced march, my husband and I leading two teenage zombies by the arm around London, much to the amusement of passers-by. It was the first time I realized that it really is possible to sleep while standing—and maybe even while walking.

            After a couple of days the boys woke up, just in time for a tour of the Shakespeare properties near Stratford. My hopes were high. But what captured the sponge-like imaginations of the boys had nothing to do with Shakespeare or the guide’s witty and informative tales of life in Tudor England. It was the ewe in one of the barns giving birth. Yes, we had told the boys the facts of life (in broad terms), but we hadn’t gone into many of the actual details. Now they stood transfixed for an hour and a half, watching the earthy process with horrified fascination.

            None of us remembers a thing about our visits to the Tower of London and Stonehenge. Things must have gone too smoothly. We do remember our drive through the Forest of Dean, though. I had planned a mini-lecture on the famous English oaks whose stout timbers built the English naval vessels of the 16th and 17th centuries. But there was no time for that. A dispute had broken out in the back seat over which boy was taking up more than his fair share of the common armrest. It ended when my husband took desperate measures and allowed our fifteen-year-old to drive the rental car for several miles. Hopefully there is a statute of limitations on poor parenting.

            I believe our most cherished memory of England is our visit to the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site—no, not the tour of Blists Hill village, nor the trip into the eerie tar tunnel, but lunch at the reconstructed Victorian pub. Our younger son, unbeknownst to us, was amusing himself by finger-lobbing bits of “authentic pork pie” at his brother. One of the shots went wide, smacking a prim-looking older woman on the cheek. He ducked under the table as she turned around in her chair, proclaiming in that withering tone that English people do so well, “He’s flicking food!”

            We’re still laughing about it. Of course, we do have the photographs–twelve of the poor laboring ewe and the other one hundred and thirty two of Volkswagens. The trip was perfect.*

How to Have a Perfect* European Vacation, Part I (*Nothing is perfect)

enchantedcastleMy blogs are a little off schedule because my husband and I just returned from two cold but nostalgic weeks in Germany, driving along the Mosel and Rhine Rivers. We retraced a route we took on our honeymoon many years ago and stayed again at one of our favorite hotels, the lovely Burghotel Auf Schönburg in Oberwesel. Oh man, have prices gone up.

My love for travel stems from a semester abroad during college at the University of Freiburg in Germany’s Black Forest, followed by a summer studying the modern British novel at St. Clare’s College, Oxford, England. I was hooked. And when my husband and I got married a few years later, we decided (much to our parents’ chagrin) to spend the three months before his induction into the Air Force traveling through Europe rather than doing something sensible like getting jobs and saving money. We spent all our savings–actually all my husband’s savings (I’d never saved a dime in my life). It was worth every cent. 

I’ve always liked Rick Steves’ philosophy of travel: “If things aren’t to your liking, change your liking.” After all, we travel to expand our horizons and to experience different cultures. Those who insist on having everything they’re used to at home should stay home and watch the Travel ChannelAfter several decades of foreign travel, I’ve developed my own philosophy: no mishaps, no memories.  

What makes foreign travel exciting, in my opinion, are not only the differences but also the “disasters,” the things that go wrong. If everything goes exactly as planned, you might come home with a few souvenirs and some nice photographs. But memories, those experiences that stay with you long after the trip has ended—the ones you invariably relate when people say, “So, tell me about your trip”—are the disasters. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating true disasters like automobile accidents or health crises, but rather those odd, strange, unexpected, and frankly funny things that happen when you don’t know exactly what’s going on. The stranger the culture, the greater the potential for confusion. Confusion leads to misunderstanding and misdirection, which lead in turn to adventure and memories.  

Next week I’ll give you an example from our first family trip to England. Trust me, it did not go as expected.


14115060_s (1)Europe is experiencing the coldest spring in a hundred years. This week my husband and I are driving along the lovely Mosel River in Germany, freezing to death. Shops and restaurants are decked out for the Easter season while people walk around swathed in heavy coats and winding scarves. Sidewalk cafés provide wooly fleeces and blankets for patrons stubbornly determined to sit outside. I’m thinking we should have gone to Italy.

One thing is going well, though—people-watching.

A fellow writer told me once that people-watching can improve your writing skills. “Watch how people move,” she said. “See if you can tell how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking by clues in their body language. Then make up a story about them.” I like people-watching anyway, but her advice has given this trip added interest.

In Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, Elizabeth George explains what she calls THADs, or “Talking Heads Avoidance Devices.” THADs are activities characters engage in that illumine their character or state of mind and prevent a scene from becoming “no more than he said/she said.” A THAD can be anything from changing a diaper to assembling a bookcase. They help the reader understand the inner life of the character and prepare him for what is to come. The key is how the activity is performed.

For example, the mother of a toddler pushes an overfull grocery cart through the supermarket while her little angel, like Hansel and Gretel, leaves a trail of broken eggs on the floor behind them. Is the mother so focused on her task that she doesn’t notice? Or is she so exhausted that she no longer cares?

In another example, an elderly woman with orthopedic shoes and a knotted wooden cane climbs a steep cobblestone street. She stops, leaning heavily on her cane, before trudging slowly on her way. Do her feet hurt? Or does she dread what she will face at home—perhaps a husband with Alzheimer’s, or simply a cold and empty apartment?

In the first example, I can tell you what the mother felt because she was me. On that particular grocery run, I was so exhausted that I truly didn’t notice what my son was getting up to. A kind employee called my attention to the trail of broken eggs, called for clean up, and replaced the carton without charge. Bless him.

The old woman I observed yesterday in the village of Cochem, Germany. If she were a character in my novel, I could use her body language to reveal her character and state of mind so that when she returns home to a husband who no longer knows her (for example), the reader understands her hopelessness without being told.

Some other interesting characters I’ve observed this week include an aging Burt Reynolds-type in designer jeans and oh-so-trendy neck scarf escorting a much younger woman in a tight-fitting mini-dress; an older couple having lunch in a café, saying nothing, barely aware of each other’s existence; and a well-behaved dog sitting quietly and obediently under his master’s restaurant table in spite of severe provocation from a naughty  child tempting him with bits of table food.

I believe the dog will appear in a future novel. And I believe spring will come.