Double Translators = Zero Understanding

One of the great things about American Hotels is that everything one needs for business travel is always available. There is, for example, always ice available, day or night.

In the rest of the world, this is not so.

This is not good for me. I like to have cold water available during the night. Normally the mini-bar provides for my nightly needs, but on a couple of occasions, the single bottle provided has not been enough. I therefore, always, make sure of the availability of ice before going to my room for the night.

This almost led to an incident the other night.

I believe it is a common courtesy (and not to mention a necessity) to learn a couple of words of the language of the country one finds oneself in. The most important word in any traveller’s infantile vocabulary should be “beer”. One should be able to pronounce the word without accent and spontaneously, which usually requires a lot of practice. The best way, I’ve found, is to find some waiter and use the word frequently. One knows one is successful when the waiter doesn’t give the wide-eyed stare, restating the word with different accents, and just rushes off to the bar. In Brazil this is “cerveja”.

The second most important words are numbers – like 1, 2, 3 etc. In Brazil, one of the first words I learnt was 20 (vinte: pronounced like Vinci – like Leonardo da). This is pretty handy because phrases like “vinte cerveja” save so much ordering trouble.

But there can be problems.

Another thing one should be extremely careful of is hand signals. We (should) all know that nodding is not universally accepted to mean “yes”; sometimes it means “no”. I scuba dive. It is a common courtesy, if not downright safety critical, to frequently ask one’s “buddy” if they’re “ok” – the hand gesture for this is thumb and forefinger closed in a circle and the other three fingers splayed like feathers on a wing – mimicking the letter O. I use this symbol frequently. I also use it to indicate “zero”. In Brazil this hand gesture means, to be precise, “fuck you”. Or, depending on the context, “I want to fuck you”.

On my way out of the hotel the other evening I asked the waiter if he could please arrange some ice for my room. The waiter asked me for my room number, and not having mastered the number 7 yet, I thought that I would just use finger gestures for my room number, 207. I should have realised there was trouble brewing when he started using words that were beyond my Brazilian vocabulary and the raised eyebrows that had dropped and become like a funnel between his now almost closed, scowling, eyes. At this point my host appeared and calmed the waiter down. He kindly listened to the waiter and then correctly explained my order.

When I got outside, I asked what the reason was for the aggression. Well, the waiter had “heard” me say “eyes”, which he thought to mean that whatever he’d seen me drink, I wanted more in my room. When he asked my room number, he “saw” me say “2?, no fuck you, 7″. At this point my host arrived and listened to the waiter. He then kindly explained that I did not know the “fuck you” meaning and that I really only wanted 7 beers in my room when I got back from dinner.

So that evening when I got back from dinner: I had seven beers in the mini-bar. And no ice.

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