I can’t boast of being particularly good at languages. But, what with an inordinate amount of toing and froing over a lifetime, I manage to get by in most countries when it comes to buying things or ordering a meal.
I even make a point of refusing English-language menus, and, if one is thrust upon me, only ever look at it for amusement value. For example, a Petersburg restaurant once had a mystery item on special, called ‘boiled language.’ I like mine nice and blue with lots of salt and pepper, I wanted to say, even though I knew that the Russians have the same word for tongue and language (yazyk, if you’re interested).
Anyway, by accident of birth I’m bilingual in English and Russian, so whenever I find myself in Moscow (which is as seldom as I can help it) I can ask anything I want, such as ‘I like my food hot, my vodka cold, and not vice versa’ or ‘Please don’t hurt me.’
Since I’ve been spending much time in France for many years, I can go so far as to exchange off-colour jokes with the maître d’ at my favourite Paris restaurant, secure in the knowledge that he is duty-bound to laugh at my one-liners (nowadays professional obligation seems to be a precondition for anyone to appreciate what my wife calls my infantile humour).
Having lived in Italy for a while and travelled extensively through Spain, I can order a fairly sophisticated meal in Rome or Madrid, and the waiters don’t even feel tempted to insult or overcharge me.
And English usually gets me through northern Europe, though not without the odd misunderstanding. Once I asked an Amsterdam fishmonger to prepare my bass for me, and he laughed just the way the French maître d’ does, even though on that occasion I wasn’t aware of making a joke. Turned out that to the Dutch gentleman preparing a fish meant cooking it, not cleaning and scaling, which is how the word is understood in the Anglophone world.
The only capital city in which I can’t make myself understood at shops and restaurants is the one where I happen to live: London. And I’d be lying to you if I claimed that my reaction to this linguistic conundrum is invariably good-natured.
This morning I was at a major supermarket where I couldn’t find Polish cucumbers in brine, which normally live in the Foods of the World section. I had to stop several assistants before I found one who could understand the word ‘cucumber’. Not a single one knew what brine was. ‘Vinegar?’ they’d suggest helpfully. ‘No, not vinegar! Brine! Salt and water!’ ‘Vinegar,’ they’d say with decisive finality.
On another occasion I was driven to distraction by a shop assistant who kept pointing me towards the butcher’s counter where I could buy ‘peeg’, rather than the pickle I had trouble finding. And when buying bread at a French bakery, such as Paul, one had better be able to speak French if wishing to communicate the difference between ‘rye bun’ and ‘rum baba’.
Now I don’t mind speaking French, but there’s a big difference between not minding and having to. In fact, I’m bloody-minded enough to refuse to speak any language other than English in my city. If they take my money in my country, they should damn well speak my language — just as I try my best to speak theirs in their country.
If this makes me sound as if I were somehow against immigrants working in London, I want to dispel this impression once and for all. I’m not. In fact, I welcome it — it’s nice to buy real bread from people who know how to make it; I like ordering my pasta from people who don’t pronounce it ‘passter’; I’m ecstatic about ordering a tapa from a waiter who knows the difference between Serrano and Ibérica hams. I just don’t want to have language problems in my own city.
Moreover, I’m a firm supporter of free trade, including the import of labour, though I do draw the line on the import of welfare recipients. I just wonder why I’ve never met a Paris waiter who doesn’t speak proper French, while these days hardly ever meeting a London one who speaks proper English.
Having lived in Texas, which in those days wasn’t known for a cosmopolitan outlook on life, I noticed that the widespread animosity towards Mexican immigrants went from peaks to troughs, depending on the economic situation (which in Houston depended entirely on the price of crude oil). When the economy was booming, nobody minded Mexican bricklayers or, for that matter, waiters very much — they were doing jobs that the good ole boys didn’t want. But when the economy dipped, suddenly the good ole boys wanted those jobs, at which point they’d begin to describe the ‘Messicans’ in terms that would incur the wrath of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
We don’t seem to have a similar problem here: our economy is in the doldrums, 20 percent of British young people are unemployed (and God only knows how many more on the ‘sickie’), and yet catering and retail jobs go to people who don’t understand me even when I speak slowly and loudly. I could suggest why this is happening, and even what needs to be done to change the situation, but I’ll save that for a different article.
For now I’ll just go on saying, ‘Well, you better habla, mate. This is England, you know. Inglaterra! Entiende?’