Hunger is a powerful motivator to learn a language. I often find myself prowling for good, inexpensive vegetarian food in foreign lands. The Chinese food in Hong Kong is, well, excellent! Go to the tippy top of the high-rise malls and find fab food at low prices. But it’s not just a GPS, a noun, and a verb. I have to understand if the person behind the counter is saying, “That will be ten dollars,” or perhaps, “The building is on fire, please exit by the stairway.”
My approach is to study the room service menu, then hit the streets before my blood sugar dips too low. In Finland, there’s a lot of reindeer on the menu (Rudolph!), in Argentina a lot of beef. I read between the entrees to put together a meal and maybe a drink. In Hamburg, this translated to potatoes and fizzy water (stick with me mein freund and you can get plain water, too.) In Costa Rica, it was more like pizza with no cheese and water with no ice. Meals got a little complicated in Prague, where my index finger did the speaking at the counters of a food hall.
All in all, the strategy works. Barcelona, where room service repeatedly told me, “Salad is the vegetarian option,” is now a breeze. The mall across from the convention center and Hotel Diagonal Mar has Subway, Star Bucks, and sushi. A sibilant dream team. A shared misunderstanding of the local language helped develop a personal relationship in Helsinki: the proprietor of the Asian take-away pulled some carrots out from under the counter on my last night there, knowing I was tired of just greens. Gross, but kind of nice, too.
Google the words for your favorite foods before you travel and bring the list. Don’t forget the words for how you want the food prepared (steamed?) and how much you want (more!)