How to Talk to People in Europe Without Sounding Like a Stupid Foreigner
“Foreigner?” you say. “FOREIGNER?! I’m an American. I am not a foreigner.” Well, I have news for you. When you are in other people’s countries, you are the foreigner. You are playing in their yard. And, as eager as they are to accept the money they figure you will throw around like rice at a wedding, they probably think of you as being one small step above pond scum in the evolutionary chain, especially if you act like a jerk.
One way to avoid being a jerk is to learn at least something of the language of the country you are going to visit before you go there, unless you plan to spend the entire time clinging to a tour group. In that case you will all be doing things en masse to irritate the locals,* so ignorance of their language might come in handy as a convenient excuse for whatever annoying thing you have done.
Learning another language is not easy, and it is true that a little knowledge can be dangerous. If you attempt to communicate with Europeans in their own languages, it is important not to end up saying something obscene, stupid or senseless. You will also want to know when you are being insulted. Here are some examples:
- To an American, a small brown sausage is a “hot dog.” The Germans don’t see it that way. To them it’s just a grilled sausage, or Bratwurst. Now, if you translate “hot dog” directly into German, you get heisser Hund. You will get a strange look from a German street vendor if you ask for a heisser Hund, though, because you have just asked for a sexually aroused dog.†
- The same principle applies to people. If you tell a German, "Ich bin heiss," you are announcing that you are horny. What you are supposed to say is, "Es ist mir heiss," or “It is to me hot.” You have to talk like Yoda when you are speaking German. It’s weird that way. Of course, if you have met a really sexy German and you want to make your intentions known, you can say this wrong on purpose, but it isn’t advisable. The German language isn’t very romantic, even to Germans.‡
- Germans sometimes refer to an American as an Ami. This is like an American calling a German a Kraut, only in reverse. The word Ami is often paired with other words to give it emphasis, notably the word Scheisse (“shit”). If you hear a German mutter Scheiss Ami, he is not declaring his undying love.
- The Italian word for “fennel” is finocchio. It is also the insult slang word for a gay male. Therefore, if you are ever shopping for fennel in Italy, it is probably better just to pick it out yourself or point. This is not to be confused with Pinocchio, the wooden puppet with the long nose. I doubt if anyone in an Italian vegetable market will be selling long-nosed wooden puppets, but you never know. It’s best to be prepared.
- If an Italian is looking at you and saying any of the following things, you had better run as fast as you can, get ready to defend yourself or smile and pretend you are too stupid for him to bother with:
stronzo (“piece of shit”)
schifoso/schifosa (“male dirtbag/promiscuous woman”)
cretino/cretina (“male idiot/female idiot”)
Va fa in culo (“Put it where the sun doesn’t shine.”)
This is only a partial list. Italians are very eloquent, and they don’t mind a little exaggeration and invention when they are useful to get a point across. To add to the expressive value of their words, they often accompany them with intricate hand gestures. Italian hand signs have been recognized all over the world as a language of their own.
This ends today’s lesson. If you have any questions, feel free to ask anyone who knows the answers.
*European tourists have no right to feel superior. They do irritating things in groups when they visit the United States, in addition to being lousy tippers. That’s a whole other subject, though.
†Don’t laugh. I once knew someone who did this.
‡There must be something there, though. Germans are still having babies.