Is there a trick to getting what you want when you order in a restaurant in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language? Well sure, there are several tricks you can use. Here’s what I learned in Madrid:
Some restaurants have English-speaking waiters. This is the absolute best scenario. Enjoy it when you find it because, believe it or not, not everyone in Madrid speaks English. The national language of Spain is – you guessed it – Spanish.
When you are not lucky enough to find someone who speaks English, I suggest that you ask if the restaurant has a menu in English. Many restaurants in Madrid do provide English menus for their Spanish-challenged customers. The best menus have English and Spanish descriptions of the dishes on the same menu, so you can stumble through ordering in badly-accented-but-understandable Spanish to your waiter who speaks no English.
For those restaurants that do not have English menus, be sure to have your handy-dandy translation IPod app so you can look up unfamiliar words. If you are lagging behind in the last century as I am, I have found that pocket dictionaries (the paper kind) will also work. If you order octopus eyes when you wanted a slice of chocolate cake, you’re liable to be disappointed. Look it up.
Another strategy is to choose restaurants that have pictures of the items on their menus. You can simply point at the picture of the ham and eggs and expect to receive ham and eggs. However, if you want the eggs scrambled instead of fried, you’re in trouble. You’re in Madrid – the eggs come fried. Period.
I hesitate to mention this final tactic because it really is embarrassing to have to resort to using it. You can…eat at McDonald’s. Big Mac and Coke are words that are known around the world. If you have accidentally ordered octopus eyes at more than one restaurant in the last two days and you are about to faint from lack of sustenance, you may have no choice but to find the local McD’s. Try not to make it a habit, though. You lose much of the cultural flavor of traveling in a foreign country if you insist on eating at McDonald’s.
If you are one of those people who are really picky about what you eat, you have a few options. 1. You can learn Spanish before you go so you can order exactly what you want. 2. You can resolve to be more open to food experiences. Octopus eyes might be delicious. 3. You can stay at home.
As my friend Lucy points out, in life it’s often a matter of liking what you get rather than getting what you like. Eating out in a foreign country is an experience. Embrace it with enthusiasm!