Something to declare

Europeans can be so annoying. Not only are they suave and sophisticated, with their man scarves and their designer stubble and their Dolce & Gabbana and heels, but they're linguistically gifted as well.

They each speak at least two languages. Usually, their native tongue and some English. They have a habit of asking annoying questions such as "What's your second language?" Then you have to explain that, in Australia, we don't really do second languages. We do sport. And drinking. We're very good at one of them, at least, at the moment.

A mate of mine grew up in Luxembourg. He spoke only four languages until he went on holiday to Brazil for six weeks. Now he speaks five. I met a girl in Switzerland recently who could speak six. She could comfortably converse in English, German, French, Italian, Russian ...

"... and I speak a little bit of Polish," she said.

"A little bit?" I asked. "Could you have a conversation with someone in Polish?"

She shrugged. "Yes, I think so."

"So that's more than a little bit, then."

A little bit. Pfft. I speak a "little bit" of Spanish. And when I say that, I don't mean I speak Spanish imperfectly; I mean I know only a few Spanish words, maybe 100 or so. I've stopped telling people I speak a little bit of Spanish because they usually assume I mean the European version of a little bit and launch into a rapid-fire conversation I can't follow.

It's OK in Europe, this lack of linguistic skill, because there's always someone around who can help you out. For example, ask the ticket officer at a train station in Munich, "Sprechen sie Englisch?" and he'll just smile. "Of course." In South America, however, things are a little different. I'm not sure if they're more focused on sport or drinking or spawning revolutionaries over there, but they don't really do second languages, either.

You can't just expect to get by with English and a little bit of Spanish in South America. You'll make it from one place to another, sure. You just won't be able to talk to anyone while you're doing it. You'll feel as though you're drifting across the top layer of a very deep society.

That's what we're doing right now. There are four of us sitting around the table in a restaurant in Santiago, Chile, and we're lost.

We don't hablas Espanol, any of us, but because I've made the mistake of admitting to my "little bit" of the language, everyone is looking at me. It's not a massive cultural misunderstanding we're dealing with here - we're just trying to read the menu. We should be OK.

The restaurant is a little joint in Providencia, one of Santiago's nicer suburbs. It's a brick building with little curtains on the windows. Men sit at the bar and drink while families sit at tables and eat simple food - burgers and bits of fried meat.

We've been in Chile about two hours; fresh off the boat. Even in the unlikely event I did speak decent Spanish, I'd be struggling here because Chilean Spanish isn't like any Spanish you've seen before.

If there's one thing I can usually decipher it's a menu, but I've never encountered some of the words I'm frowning at.

"Habla Ingles?" I plead with a waiter, who just smiles a huge smile and shakes his head.


"Not even a little bit?"

Beer is cerveza, so that's fine. We'll have cuatro of those. But what's palta? And Vienesa? Actually, I think vienesa is a schnitzel. Weiner schnitzel is from Vienna, vienesa sounds like Vienna; hence, by my logic, a vienesa is a schnitzel. Cool.

I look around the table. Cuatro of those, too. We have little idea of what anything else on the menu is anyway, save for the easily translatable but fairly unadventurous hamburguesa, so we're all in for vienesas.

If it sounds as though we're frightened by this experience, you've got us wrong. This is actually my ideal night out. The joy of travel, for me, is being thrust into situations in which you don't quite know what you're doing, and having fun working your way out of them.

The beers arrive, bubbly and frosty, so at least we got that right. "Salud!" we say, clinking glasses, unveiling another of our shared words. We're getting a few looks from fellow diners as we babble on in English, but it's all good-natured.

Finally, it's the moment of truth as our schnitzels arrive, looking exactly as I'd ... wait, no, they're going to another table. Coming our way are four hot dogs piled high with the lot, including palta, which turns out to be avocado. (I've always though it was aguacate, but whatever.) They're dumped in front of us, and everyone fixes me with a grin.

"Schnitzels, eh? Well done, Ben."

Fine. Still, the hot dogs taste pretty good, and my Spanish skills have improved. I now speak not just a little bit, but a little bit more.

This story Something to declare first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.