Friday, 9 November 2012

Trilingual Travel on the Other Side of the Alps

It's an endlessly occurring experience for Anglophone travellers. You go to another country, bust out your best phrases in the local language, and the serveur, cameriere or Kellner speaks straight back to you in English. "It must be my terrible accent," you think. Or maybe you got a gender wrong. Or quite possibly, it wasn't language at all, but the socks you wore with your sandals, the flaming sunburn or the way you counted on your fingers that gave you away. Either way, Antoine, Giulio or Hans-Peter knew straight away that you were English, American, Irish, Canadian, whatever. Actually, scrub that. Depending on the whiteness of your teeth, he assumed you were either English or American, but that's not really the point. He guessed your mother tongue, so no more speaking foreign languages for you.

Or so it seems. But I have often wondered whether the distinction between nationalities is not more a case of  "from here/ not from here" and whether people who address me in English are either trying to be helpful or delighted to practise with a native speaker rather than being horrified by my massacring of their beautiful mother tongue.

Which is why, travelling in Italy for the first time with Understanding Frenchman and speaking mostly French, I was intrigued to see what effect my masquerading as a francophone would have on the way people reacted to us.

Here are the results:

Staff of a multinational hotel chain: mostly Italian, but occasionally English, especially when I was alone and they had seen my passport (and also the time I embarrassingly confused the numbers 12 and 200). None of them spoke French to either of us.

Assorted shop staff in Milan, Florence and Bologna: entirely in Italian, even, on occasion to UFM (who speaks no Italian whatsoever) when he was alone.

Charming older waiter at a local, non-touristy restaurant in Florence: spoke to us the entire evening in slightly hesitant French.

Grumpy waiter in Milan: thought we were Spanish but spoke to us in English anyway.

Jumped-up twenty-year old waiter on the main piazza in Bologna: insisted on speaking in English, but his attitude was worthy of a Parisian.

Waiter at a Neapolitan restaurant in Bologna with a group of English-speakers: English to the group, camped up French to Understanding Frenchman, and, inexplicably, to my English friend who speaks fluent Italian, large amounts of German.

African bracelet sellers on the streets of all three cities: every language under the sun.

The conclusion: in Italy, you can get by with English, it's worth trying out your Italian, and if you go to Bracce restaurant in Bologna, the food is amazing and you can speak whatever language you like!


  1. I used to be offended in Ottawa when people switched to French when talking to me, but I realized it was mostly just because they did it out of respect or to practice their language skills. I'm guilty of switching to English when I meet Brits, Canadians or Americans in France too!

  2. With me, it's the way I look. People bust out the English before I've even opened my mouth. Depending on how arsey I'm feeling it has been known for me to claim that I'm Swedish or Finnish or some other country of which they're pretty much guaranteed not to know the language so that they'll go back to Italian. If I'm feeling mellower I just continue on speaking Italian to them, whatever language they use towards me. I know that a lot of the time it comes from a desire to help, or to practice their English, but I do find it frustrating, especially when it comes from someone whose English is really poor, as a lot of the time it just confuses matters.