Traveling to a country where you do not understand the language is a challenge. Period. However, I do have a few tips and tricks to help you navigate your way through that challenge. 10 of them, in fact. My foreign language travel tips are a result of more than one experience (a.k.a. blunder) in some far off land. Some work better than others do, so I suggest you employ them all to get where you need to go.
Foreign language travel tips
Our last adventure was to the Balkans. We traversed through Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria. These countries are beautiful and full of history and their own unique cultures. They also each speak their own language and three of them use the Cyrillic alphabet. Also, unlike Western Europe, English is not readily spoken. Talk about a challenge.
Now some people may thrive on this challenge. I am not one of them. I mostly feel anxious and exhausted after a day of confusion and miscommunication. So I like to use every trick I can to make travel a little easier. Here they are in no particular order:
Download a good translation app
We like the Google Translate app. It is not full proof, but it has come in handy on more than one occasion. The camera feature is especially useful for things like menus. You just want to make sure you download the correct language before you leave so you can use the app offline. In Bulgaria, R was able to type in the word “South” when there seemed to be some confusion as to which bus station we needed off. Apparently, there were two in our destination city and our bus driver could not understand what we were saying. One typed word and we understood each other…enough anyway.
On this particular trip, Google Translate struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet (as did we). But it did an okay job. Perhaps we should have looked for an app that specialized in Cyrillic. I will look into that next time. You could also go old school and carry along a pocket dictionary. However, even a small one is bulkier and less convenient than a smart phone.
We played a little game of would-you-rather on this trip to determine whether we would rather lose our passport or our cellphone. Turns out, we would both rather lose our passports. It just seems like less of a hassle, expense and inconvenience to replace it than the limb we call our cellphones. Ten years ago (maybe even five), that was not the case.
Keep a pen and paper at the ready
We found the best way to buy bus and train tickets was to write down the destination, time and number of tickets we needed. Most of the people we bought tickets from knew basic English. However, it seemed easier on both groups to present the information rather than stumble through explanations with weird accents and mispronunciations.
The day before we left, I called a taxi company in Bucharest to request a taxi to take us to our hotel. We had read about some of the difficulties of catching a cab into the city, so we opted to spend a bit more to have a man waiting for us when we arrived with our name on a sign as we exited customs. The man I talked to at the taxi company spoke good English, but names can be tricky. When we arrived in Bucharest, no one was holding a sign with Bridget Dalin on it. Luckily, R was able to deduce that Reeget Dullun was pretty close. We found our ride! It all worked out, but I would have had better luck had I been able to email or book online. Never underestimate the power of the written word when traveling.
Find an information desk
Most airports, train stations and bus stations have an information desk. And every major city (and even some that are not so major) have at least one tourist information center. Honestly, information desks were hit or miss on this trip. But it never hurt us to stop at one and see if we could communicate enough to get the information we needed.
At a tourist information center in Sofia, Bulgaria, we were able to pick up a map and learn some useful information about taking the metro to the bus station. Also in Sofia, we were unable to communicate properly with the nice lady at the information desk in the train station. Both were worth a try. It just turned out that one was successful and one was not.
Keep it simple
Sometimes, it is best to keep conversations and requests to a minimum. The receptionist at our hotel in Burgas, Bulgaria, was not friendly, but she was efficient at checking us in and relaying information about the hotel. Later on in our stay, I attempted to engage her in some conversation since I was curious about some things I saw wandering around town. It was obvious that she was not interested in chatting.
What was not so obvious until we struggled to communicate for a few minutes was that her English was limited to mostly words and phrases having to do with the hotel or touristy things. My asking about the local culture and events was frustrating for both her and myself. I finally wrapped it up, thanked her and headed to my room. Know your audience. You will meet those that are interested in chatting and they will ask many questions. But until they do, keep it simple.
Learn to say hello and thank you
Just two words in a foreign language can take you far. Sure, you cannot communicate much with them. However, a hello and a thank you show the locals that you are trying. They also make you feel good whenever you enter and leave an establishment.
I am embarrassed to admit that I did not make much of an effort to learn hello and thank you on this particular trip. It made a difference, and not in a good way. I will definitely be working a little harder on my next international voyage to learn a few words and phrases.
Smile and point
This is my old standby. I am always amazed at what I can accomplish by smiling, pointing, nodding, holding up one or two fingers, etc. Gesturing is its own language and it is pretty darn universal.
I think we bought most of our street food and pastries by pointing. Sometimes the vendor knew English, but it was not really needed for buying one slice of pizza or two cups of corn. As long as the price is listed somewhere, the transaction will probably go off without a hitch. If the price was not listed, I sometimes just handed over some money and hoped they were honest about giving me back my change. It appeared that that was the case and if it wasn’t, well I suppose they needed it more than I did.
Utilize the locals
Most of our Airbnb hosts spoke very good English. I often forget to use them as a resource, which is just stupid. When R and I could not find information online about some transportation options (not in English anyway), R thought to contact our Airbnb host. He was very helpful in eliminating some of the options we had been considering.
Another time, we were struggling greatly with how to communicate our location to the driver who was trying to find us to take us to our next destination. Although his English was better than my Romania, it was still a lost cause and things were looking dire. A local taxi cab driver heard us struggling and tried to help us with our pronunciation. That too was a lost cause, but since he understood our plight, I handed my cellphone over and he was able to tell the driver where we were (with a lot of yelling, but that seems to be a Romanian thing). Not sure we would have every made it out of that town without that helpful local taxi cab driver.
Talk to the younger generations
We walked into a beautiful shop in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The proprietor smiled and said hello in Bulgarian. We responded and then began to look around, commenting on the items we saw to each other in English. After a few minutes, the proprietor stepped outside and returned with her daughter, who was probably around 12 years old. She told us hello in English and we understood that she was to be our translator.
Most of the younger generations have learned or are learning English. If you are struggling to find help, look for someone who appears to be college-age. Often, they enjoy practicing their English.
Observe those around you
You can learn a lot by watching the locals and observing their behavior. You may not be able to understand the conversation taking place between the customer in front of you and the grocery store employee, but you can see that there was some sort of an exchange about a plastic bag for the groceries. When it was my turn to buy groceries, I would simply smile, shake my head no (which actually means yes in Bulgaria, but that is a whole different thing) and hold up my reusable tote. Nine times out of 10, that was enough for us to understand each other. But if I had not been paying attention, we both would have been lost.
Laugh at yourself
When you cannot understand what is being said around you, things may not go according to plan. Assuming those plans are not critical, and they rarely are when it comes to most of your interactions, it is important to learn to laugh at yourself.
We visited a farmers market in Belgrade and the strawberries looked so delicious that I had to buy some. Unfortunately, I could not communicate with the vendor about how much I wanted and before I really thought about it, I had pulled out a 200 dinar bill (which is about $2). Now in the U.S., two dollars does not usually buy a lot of strawberries. But in Serbia, two dollars buys A LOT of strawberries. As the vendor started put scoop after scoop of strawberries into my bag, R and I could not help but laugh. I figured I bought about 4.5 lbs of strawberries that day. Although that was not my intention, it made for a funny story and it was certainly not an expensive mistake. Also, we had tasty strawberries for a couple of days!
Communication is important, but if you cannot speak the language, it can be a challenge. Hopefully, you will find some of my foreign language travel tips useful the next time you venture to a land far, far way.