Lost in Translation

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April 22nd 2015
Published: April 22nd 2015
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Mother-in-law spiceMother-in-law spiceMother-in-law spice

I was relieved to see English-language labels at this stall in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. Then I read them, and found I was no closer to figuring out what anything was. What is "Mother-in-law spice"?
One of the obvious difficulties of living and traveling in other countries is the language barrier. Even after studying Italian and mastering the (very) basics, there is lots of trial and error and confusion. Leaving Italy and traveling to countries with languages even more unfamiliar, such as German or Turkish, has been REALLY confusing. Contrary to popular misconception, English is NOT spoken everywhere. This is fine with me. I welcome the ridiculous bumbling and unfamiliarity that comes with travel. It is cleansing, bracing, challenging. It is also exhausting.

Take, for instance, the lotion debacles. From the moment we landed in Europe, Dean and I have been searching for a decent body lotion. Purchasing lotion ought to be a straightforward transaction, unless you have no idea what those bottle labels are saying. "Doccia latte," for instance, translates as "shower milk" from the Italian, a substance that I have now used many times, both in and out of the shower. I still cannot tell you exactly what it is, but can affirm a few things: it is NOT body lotion, it is not soap, and it is extremely popular in Italy. The name can vary slightly, and we have bought at least
Lost in TranslationLost in TranslationLost in Translation

When you don't know what the menu says, order it all!
three variations of this product before we understood that it was not, in fact, lotion. Learning to identify lotion, though, has not guaranteed success, since there is no such thing as unscented anything in Italy, or even lightly scented. We often go with the baby products as those are sometimes slightly less offensive olfactorily.

Germany and Austria was a bit easier, as the word "lotion" often appears. But "lotion" can appear on products that are sometimes more than just "lotion" such as self-tanning or depilatory products, words I am not familiar with in any language save my own. I will not elaborate on that, save to say that the admonition about trying out a small sample on one's skin in a discreet location is always good practice.

The process of procuring lotion began anew in Turkey. There was a great little market around the corner from our apartment, owned by a man who was exceedingly patient with our lack of Turkish. He would write out the amounts in pencil on scraps of paper (no cash register) and count out the money we proffered him with outstretched palms. He beamed at me when I learned to say the rather
Ordering at restaurantsOrdering at restaurantsOrdering at restaurants

Bring a dictionary. And practice.
complicated phrase meaning "Thank you" in Turkish, as though I were a bright kindergartner that had just done something difficult. We went to this market frequently and so Dean picked up a tube of baby lotion there one day.

The lotion was a real disappointment. Emerging from a shower, Dean opened up said tube and began applying. He rubbed and rubbed and rubbed that lotion into his arm. "I don't like this lotion," he said to me, "it's not rubbing in." He lifted his arm to show me. "It just sits there, like paste. It's like...". He stopped. He looked at me. I looked at his arm. And started laughing. I did not stop laughing for a long time.

We live without lotion for some days here and there, but we can't live without food. Shopping for it in grocery stores or ordering it in restaurants is always exciting, particularly when the labels or menus are totally incomprehensible to us. I often carry a phrasebook for this reason, and typically practice some words in preparation. The results have been mixed. In Venice I asked for potato chips with a drink--a common accompaniment in Italy, and just one more
More practice orderingMore practice orderingMore practice ordering

Beth encourages me as I practice Italian before ordering. I did not get what I (thought I)asked for.
reason to love the whole darn country--and got nacho Doritos instead. In Munich I requested a salad--the menu said "salad"-- and got a plate of unidentifiable pickled objects. We ordered "burgers" in Salzburg and meatloaf arrived. In Vienna we went grocery shopping and were pleased, when searching for sandwich items, to find sliced and roasted "schinken". Upon opening the package, tasting and then referring to an online dictionary, we discovered that this word is not a cognate of "chicken" but is instead the word for "ham".

Happily, a recommended restaurant in Istanbul, Hayvore, was designed for the Turkish-impaired: the food was behind a long counter, and you could point and hold up fingers. This was not without its drawbacks. If you asked what something was, the implication was that you were ordering that dish. In this way a plate or two of everything the chef cooked showed up at our table. The waiter was laughing as he brought plates out, pushing aside salt shakers and glasses to make room. As the plates kept coming, we started laughing too. And eating. The food was wonderful. We returned to Hayvore another night, but weren't any better at ordering. Thankfully, Hayvore supplies
Not lotionNot lotionNot lotion

That's right--this is a tube of diaper rash cream.
to-go containers.

We continue to study Italian, to bumble and make mistakes. It's all part of the journey. Photo documentation of the bumbling continues below.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


Not lotionNot lotion
Not lotion

Despite their appearance, none of these bottles contain lotion.
Also not lotionAlso not lotion
Also not lotion

Seeing the word "crema" I nearly bought one of these. But everything in this photo is cellulite cream, a product that takes up a surprising amount of shelf space in even the smallest grocery store.
Also not lotionAlso not lotion
Also not lotion

No, none of these bottles contain lotion. The abundance of personal hygiene products made finding and choosing lotion daunting--dangerous even!
Map readingMap reading
Map reading

Dean puzzles out street names in German. Finding and understanding directions is always challenging. The boys wait.

In a restaurant in Vienna I was so excited when I understood this sign that I almost took up smoking again.
Turkish breakfastTurkish breakfast
Turkish breakfast

For the language impaired, Turkish breakfast is handy. You say "breakfast" and it all comes. As it was explained to me by the nice waitress, "In Turkey breakfast we think the most important food." I understood that just fine.

We weren't sure what we ordered, but it was delicious.
Getting the order rightGetting the order right
Getting the order right

Sacher torte in Vienna
Universal languageUniversal language
Universal language

No words needed.

A sign I understand
Ordering gelatoOrdering gelato
Ordering gelato

Rarely goes wrong.

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