Useful foreign phrases, Part 1: how to say, “I’m just looking” in 10 languages

useful foreign phrasesI’ve frequently pimped Lonely Planet’s Phrasebooks on this site, but I swear I don’t get kickbacks from the company. It’s just that I’m a big believer in not being a). A Tourist (although, let’s face it, if I’m not at home, I am indeed A Tourist) and b). helpless.

Even if you’re the biggest xenophobe on earth–which would make foreign travel a really weird and pointless pastime you might want to reconsider– it’s hard to dispute the importance of knowing how ask “Where’s the bathroom?” in certain urgent circumstances.

It’s with such experiences in mind that I came up with this fun little series. There are a handful of phrases I’ve cultivated in various languages that have served me well, in situations both good and bad. Not only are they inscribed on the dog-eared inner covers of my trusty Phrasebooks; they’re etched into my mind, so I can summon them at will. Whether you need to ward off annoying vendors, personal humiliation, potential suitors, or would-be attackers, it pays to be prepared and know what to say, when. Since things like “Yes, No, Thank you, Please, Hello,” etc. are generally not too challenging, for the purposes of this series, I’ll leave them out. That doesn’t mean they’re not very important to learn, however.

This week’s lesson: “I’m just looking.” Invaluable for politely but firmly stating your desire to see with your eyes, not your wallet. It may not stop persistent hawkers from trying to close a deal, but at least you’re showing respect by speaking in their native tongue (or an approximation thereof). And who knows? If you change your mind, that alone may help you score a better bargain.

P.S. I don’t claim to be polylingual: I’m compiling phrases based on past experience or research. If I offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section. Be nice!

1. Spanish: Solo estoy mirando.

2. Italian: Sto solo guardando.

3. French: Je regarde.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Gerry Balding]useful foreign phrases4. German: Nur schauen.

5. Czech: Jen se dívám.

6. Portuguese: Estou só a olhar.

Many languages, especially those spoken in Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. Transliteration will vary, depending upon the guidebook/translator, which is why the spelling or phonetics below may be different from other sources. Since these languages are largely tonal (and may require accents or characters not available on a Western computer), look at this way: odds are you’re going to mangle the pronunciation anyway, so just do your best! It’s the thought that counts.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Tái haa.

8. Japanese: Watashi ga mite iru dakedesu (here’s to Japan getting back on its feet and attracting travelers soon!) To make a Red Cross donation, click here.

9. Vietnamese: Tôi chỉ xem thôi.

14. Moroccan Arabic: Ghir kanshuf.

What’s the most useful phrase you’ve ever learned in a foreign language? How has it helped your travels? We want to hear from you!

[Photo credit: Flickr user wanderer_by_trade]


Ask Gadling: How not to act like a tourist in a foreign country

Merriam-Webster defines a tourist as, “one who makes a tour for pleasure or culture.” I would stretch that definition to include business travelers, assuming they have a bit of leisure time.

Here at Gadling, our goal is to encourage travel and exploration, even if it’s in your hometown. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m referring to non-domestic travel. And no matter how hard you try, even if you live in a foreign country and speak the language fluently, natives always know you’re a tourist or not one of them.

I believe that being a tourist generally entails asking a lot of questions out of curiousity or general inquiry, and making the occasional cultural gaffe. But there are many compelling reasons why you should squelch the urge to behave like the stereotypical tourist: the Ugly American, say, or a culturally clueless wanderer. Without getting into semantics or the murky, pretentious waters of “traveler” versus “tourist.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the ideal traveler. There are times when I’m frustrated, pissed off, or discombobulated. But one of the reasons I travel is that I like to challenge myself, and get out of my comfort zone. Once I remind myself of that, I’m able to relax, and usually, find the humor in a situation.

Advantages to not acting like a tourist

Safety. Just like at home, if you look like you know where you’re going–even if you don’t–you’re less likely to become a target for crime or harassment. We’ve all had to whip out a map or guidebook, no matter how surreptitiously. There’s nothing wrong with that: just don’t flaunt it. Most people are genuinely helpful, but if I need assistance, I prefer to choose my source if the circumstances are remotely sketchy.

A more rewarding cultural experience. This isn’t to say an incredible trip is impossible for aloha-wear-clad package tourists who never leave the confines of their hotel property, or independent travelers who consult Generic Guidebook at every step. But straying from the beaten path, being culturally aware, and allowing things to happen serendipitously are a lot easier when you have low-key dress and demeanor, and an open mind.

You’ll enjoy yourself more. Intense cultural experiences aren’t always pleasant (the time I was the only butt-naked Westerner in a very local’s-only Moroccan hammam was, shall we say, awkward). But as a rule, being open to such experiences allows you to feel less like an outsider, and provides a window into how other people live, eat, socialize, fall in love, celebrate, and mourn. There’s a fine line between being a participant and a cultural voyeur, however, and doing a bit of pre-trip research will go far in helping you avoid crossing it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Todd Mecklem]

Things you can do to lessen your “touristiness”

Learn a few key phrases. No one expects you to speak the local language, but it’s helpful to learn basics like “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” and “where’s the bathroom?” It also endears you to most natives (save the French, who generally–and stereotypically– aren’t charmed when you butcher their mother tongue). Many of the wonderful invitations and experiences I’ve had came from my willingness to respect the local culture, no matter how idiotic I sounded at the time. Even pointing to sentences in a phrasebook is more polite than Speaking.English.Loudly.and.Slowly. to someone who obviously doesn’t understand you. I never head to a non-English-speaking country without a Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Learn a bit about your destination. You don’t need to memorize the entire history of, say, Portugal, but it’s helpful to read up on the country, its people, and customs. It will help you to understand certain quirks, the cuisine, religious practices, etc. It also helps prevent you from committing irritating, inadvertently offensive acts like insistently speaking Spanish to a Portuguese bus driver (I’m talking to you, Mr. Clueless Backpacker on the Faro-to-Seville route). That’s a relatively innocuous crime, but things like touching a person on the head or pointing your foot at them (Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia), making the “OK” symbol (Brazil), or exposing bare shoulders if you’re a female visiting a mosque are decidedly not cool, and can have unpleasant repercussions. Don’t be that person. Behave Yourself: The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is a great–and funny–crash course on global customs.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Use your indoor voice. As Americans, we’re known for our friendliness, enthusiasm, and eagerness to express our opinions. Not bad traits. But in a foreign country, these things, combined with our notoriously high decibel level, can be misconstrued or just plain obnoxious. Along the same lines, curb the American tendency to boast, and know when to let certain comments or behaviors slide–sometimes, you need to bite your lip, and remember that you’re the visitor. It’s never worth compromising your personal safety (or that of another) to voice an opinion, but by all means, do stand up for yourself if you’re at risk.

Dress appropriately. This generally applies more to women than men, but in general, why would you want to draw unwanted attention to yourself? Leave the frat shirts, booty shorts, and low-cut tank tops at home. While this is a basic personal safety issue, it’s also about cultural respect. It’s tacky and offensive for a Western woman to sunbathe topless in Southern Thailand (which has a sizeable Muslim population), but it can be seriously problematic for her to show too much skin or not wear a headscarf in certain rural areas of the Middle East.

Lend a hand. While some might see this as uber-touristy (if not outright patronizing), I often bring useful items with me to certain countries. Whether it’s colored pencils or clothing for kids, basic medical necessities, or fresh produce, the fact is, isolated and impoverished people are often grateful for assistance. I won’t bring or distribute items without doing a bit of research to see if it’s acceptable/what communities are in need of.

Eat as the locals do, or at least pretend. For me, street food and dining in a private home are the greatest joys of travel. But not everyone feels that way, and sometimes, even I find myself confronted by a glass or plate of something so repulsive/high-risk, I can’t bring myself to partake. To refuse an offering can often cause disgrace or mortal offense to your host, so if at all possible, fake it. That banana chicha, fermented by a heaping dose of my (likely tubercular) host’s saliva? Yeah, I didn’t really drink that.

Wear your poker face. I’ve often been told I have an expressive face (usually not as a compliment). When I’m traveling abroad, I have to work overtime to not show emotions when confronted with a cultural foible or other situation that amuses or offends my American sensibilities. And while losing your temper can occasionally work in your favor, remember that in many parts of the world–most notably, Asia–it’s seen as a major character flaw. Take a deep breath, simmer down, and please don’t unleash the “But I’m an American!” card.

Rules to follow as a tourist

Be humble and gracious. You may find the local diet, standard of living, and treatment of women appalling, but you needn’t need show it.

Be respectful. You’re the foreigner speaking a crazy language.

Don’t be a victim. Use common sense, and don’t go looking for trouble. If it finds you anyway, try resolve the situation in a non-confrontational way, or do what you need to do to protect yourself. In a worst case scenario, call your nearest embassy or consulate.

Be prepared. Always have a Plan B, whether it’s money, copies of your passport and medical insurance, or taking out travel insurance. Email yourself and family or a friend copies of all important documents, including lists of emergency contacts, doctors, and collect numbers for banks and credit card companies.

Be grateful. No matter what kind of amazing adventures I have, and no matter how much my nationality/government/deeply ingrained personal and cultural shortcomings may embarrass me, I’m profoundly appreciative that being an American grants me the quality of life and civil liberties I possess.

[Photo credits: NY, Flickr user Baptiste Pons; Las Vegas, Flickr user geoperdis; Mona Lisa, Flickr user Gregory Bastien]

Foreign “safety vernacular” for women

There is, as they say, a time and place for everything. And sometimes, ladies, that occurs when you’re traveling. I encourage anyone who travels to a foreign country to learn a few key phrases and learn a bit about the place, in order to avoid cultural faux pas. Even something as innocuous as patting a child on the head in Thailand is considered a grievous offense, because the head is considered the the highest (and thus most sacred) part of the body.

It’s also bad form to lose your temper in Asia and other parts of the world, because it goes against cultural mores. But what to do when your safety is threatened, or if you’re being relentlessly hit upon?

It’s for this reason that I’ve developed what I like to call “safety vernacular” in a variety of languages. While I speak Spanish, I only know the aforementioned key phrases in other tongues: “please,” “thank you,” “what’s your name,” “where’s the bathroom?” But I also know how to swear like a banshee, and employ the varying degrees of “Get lost” that range from polite to, “If you don’t get out of my face now, you’re going to lose your testicles.”Now, you’re probably asking, “Is that really necessary?” Yes, it is. And it just may save your life.

What you say, and how you say it — as well as how you physically react — depends upon where you’re traveling. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore your harasser and move on. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse by responding aggressively in a country where women simply don’t act that way/where it could further encourage or antagonize your would-be attacker or paramour. And please, follow your guidebook’s advice on appropriate dress — not only will it help you blend in (inasmuch as that’s possible); it’s also a matter of cultural respect. Leave the Daisy Dukes at home, and pack a bra. While it doesn’t help in the vernacular department, a great book for cultural advice is Behave Yourself! The essential guide to international etiquette, by Michael Powell.

From chikan to “Eve-teasing”

Let’s take Tokyo’s Metro. It’s infamous for acts of chikan, or frotteurism, and foreigners aren’t exempt. Please note this doesn’t mean all Japanese men are evil perverts, or that riding the subway in Japan means you’re going to get felt up. But put it this way: it’s become such an issue that some railway companies in Japan designate women-only cars during peak hours.

Anyway. Japan is a country where it’s imperative not to “lose face.” Screaming at a frotteur and smacking him across the face, while perhaps the appropriate response, isn’t going to fly. Instead, find a guidebook that will tell you how best to deal with the situation, as well as provide you with a handy phrase to thwart it. “Eve-teasing” is a similar form of public harassment prevalent in India, as are open, leering stares. The best way to handle it is to ignore the stares, seek the company of other (local) women on public transit, or to call out your harasser in a crowd — public humiliation is very effective in India.

On how phrasebooks can help

It is for these situations that I swear by Lonely Planet Phrasebooks. They’re published in just about every language a traveler would require: Swahili to Southeast Asian hill tribe dialects; Basque to Mongolian. Not only do these little books offer cultural tidbits, but they’re packed with appropriate emergency phrases ranging from “Help!” “I’ve been raped,” and “How do I find the ____ embassy?” to sections on “Dating and Romance,” “Cultural Differences,” and “Specific Needs” travel. The various authors also have a great sense of (albeit dark) humor.

For example: the Spanish Phrasebook (Spain/Basque) offers these two gems: Por favor, deje de molestarme (Please stop hassling me), and Estoy aqui con mi esposo (I’m here with my husband). There are also phrases for “Do you have a condom?” and, “I might be in a wheelchair, but I’m not stupid!” See, very handy. The Portuguese Phrasebook also contains, in the “Making Love/Afterwards” section, “Would you like a cigarette?” and, “I think you should leave now.”

And some real-world examples…

But we’re talking safety here, and not the kind a condom can protect you from (although do take some with you; you really don’t want to be purchasing them in developing nations with less-regulated testing standards). In Italy and Latin America, the local women have no problem telling annoying men where to get off, and you should follow suit. I always make a point of saying I have a husband (it’s somewhat more effective than “boyfriend,” and I learned my lesson the one time I said I was a lesbian to a pesky Italian in a bar. “Aah!” he cried with delight, “Leccamento il fico! (“licking the fig”).”)

Anyhoo. I’ve found that said pesky Italians are best met with a loud, “Vaffanculo, stronzo (“Fu*k off, di*khead!)!” Once, in a dodgy situation in Mexico, I screamed, “Largate! O patear las bolas!” According to the Mexican friend who taught me all the bad (and safety) words I know en espanol, if said forcefully, this slang translates as, “Fu*k off! Or I’ll kick you in the balls!” Whatever; it worked. So did the use of “Get lost!” in Arabic to two sketchy boys who stalked me while I was lost in a Marrakesh souk.

So there you have it. Don’t go looking for trouble, but don’t invite trouble by looking (and acting) like a victim. A little pre-trip research, and keeping your wits about you on the road will go a long way toward ensuring you come home with nothing more than great memories and all of your valuables.