It would be a few weeks and bumbling through several languages later before we realized this simple truth while traveling: you’d be surprised how much you can do in a restaurant without language. At least in the countries we’ve been to, restaurants operate in pretty much the same way. They all follow what I’ve come to know as, “The Script.” It goes something like this:
You walk in.
You say hello.
They ask you how many people, sometimes if you want to sit inside or outside (usually with helpful hand gestures).
Then, they physically walk you to an available table and point.
You sit down.
The first thing they’ll ask is usually if you want something to drink.
Then after that, they’ll come and ask you if you want something to eat.
When you’re done, they’ll ask if you’re finished and take it away, and if they ask anything else, it’s usually about dessert or coffee.
In Europe, you’ve got to ask for the check. While I feel like I remember reading once that doing that hand signal of scribbling on an invisible piece of paper to request the check as rude in some countries, it is an effective signal all the same.
And boom! That’s it. If you are conscious of The Script, not only do you feel much more at east, but it’s much easier to field questions that you don’t understand. I’ve fooled a few visiting friends into thinking I was knowledgeable about many more languages than I actually am, just by trusting and following The Script. For any questions I’m asked that are not part of The Script, usually I just furrow my brow and nod knowingly and accept whatever comes next as part of the experience.
Though many language programs start by teaching you how to handle these situations, because of the prevalence of its use, I wouldn’t classify The Script as survival language, because you really can get by without it (albeit sometimes feeling impolite and stupid). Things that you really need for survival are things like, “Is there someone in there? / Are you in line?” to save yourself from mortifying moments, or things like, “Are there animal organs in any of these items on the menu?” for obvious reasons.
Anyway, we didn’t really know anything about The Script when we entered this restaurant, so we were nervous.
Coming in wasn’t so hard we all just held up three fingers, and Mary said 3 in Polish as Kevin and I said it in English. Despite throwing all the wrong 3’s at him, he understood and kindly found us a table.
The first hurdle we came across was thanking him for seating. It’s such a strange feeling to realize that your “Thank you,” doesn’t hold the same power and meaning as you’re used to. It’s kind of like holding a very promising water gun that only dribbles when you press the trigger.
Realizing that you don’t know what to say in the span of the second that it’s socially expected for you to say something is also a lame-water-gun moment.
In these moments when I’m caught off-guard, I usually settle on something like a muttered, “Thank you,” quickly corrected with whatever word I know in a foreign language that is most accessible in my brain at the moment. In this moment in a Slovakian restaurant, I think it was a Polish, “Thank you,” followed up by a Polish, “Good,” and a good, ol’ fashioned, desperate, sheepish smile and avoidance of all eye contact.
And afterward, anytime this happens, I always try to think about what I must look like to the people I’m trying to communicate with. I don’t know what the comparison would be of someone walking into a restaurant in the States and muttering a “Thank you. Good.” in neither English nor their own dominant language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone do this in the States.
For the menu on this visit, Mary helped us translate a few things that were similar in Polish, and we used Google translate for a few other things so we were able to pick something reasonably safe. For the beer, there was a fridge, so we could just point. Beautiful. All in all, not a rocky first language-less restaurant experience!