Travel Oops: “Tenemos un Problema con el Baño” (We Have a Problem with the Bathroom)

© Edward Schuck

My sister Suzie and I © Edward Schuck 1981

Becoming fluent in Spanish was an important goal of mine in seventh grade at Santa Barbara Junior High in 1981. Already, I knew that I wanted to travel.

Every Sunday when my dad brought in the Los Angeles Times and placed it on our kitchen table, I rifled through for the travel section, which was huge. I scanned all the ads and articles as well as filled out every form, requesting brochures and tourist materials. Many of the countries to which I wanted to travel were Spanish-speaking nations.

© Dhscommtech

© Dhscommtech

Consequently, to learn Spanish, I dutifully conjugated verbs, poured through my textbook and practiced the book’s basic dialog scenarios at home. Literally translated into English (only in present tense), the riveting stories went something like this:

Carmen: Hello, Juan.

Juan: Hello, Carmen.

Carmen: I go to the shoe store.

Juan: I go to the shoe store, also.

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Avoid the Oops — Not Trying the Language

Katerina, my new Greek friend who taught me the proper Greek alphabet
© Stephanie Glaser

During a layover from Athens to Amsterdam, I took advantage of a free minibus tour of Budapest, arranged by the airline company on which I flew. Because the tour was conducted completely in Greek, I didn’t learn much about Budapest, but I befriended the seven other travelers on the van who were all from Greece.

The only Greek word that I knew was “Efharisto,” (thank you) so whenever I could use it, I did.

Katerina, a seven-year-old girl who was part of the minivan crew, giggled and said something to Gabriella, one of the two English speakers in the group. Gabriella told me that Katerina found it funny that the only thing I could say in Greek was “thank you.”

Through Gabriella, I told Katerina I actually knew the Greek alphabet. I spared relaying the details of how I had learned her language’s alphabet, along with such skills as playing quarters and other drinking games, while in a sorority at college. Then in a moment of silliness, I sang her the version I had learned courtesy of Delta Gamma.

For a minute, as everyone sat in silence, I thought I had offended them. Then all the Greeks broke out into uproarious laughter. Clearly they got a big kick out of the Alpha Beta Gamma ditty, and they had a hard time composing themselves again.

Although slightly embarrassed, I never felt like they thought I was an idiot. Entertaining, yes, but stupid, no. In fact, Katerina and her grandfather offered to give me a proper lesson in the alphabet. They patiently waited for me to repeat each letter after them.

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