A Very Gothic Travelogue: F*(% Off and Other Actually Useful Phrases

When travelling abroad, it's helpful to bring along a dictionary of some sort (particularly if one is forced to threaten over-amorous suitors at gunpoint).  However, it's even more helpful to pick up key phrases in the various languages of the countries you plan to visit, which I learnt quickly when I spent some time travelling through Europe in the Autumn of 1997 - and which helped me out when writing Nachtsturm Castle, which travels through so many European countries!

The semester I spent abroad, my home base was in the little town of Gaming, Austria, at a converted Carthusian Monastery (the Kartause, see below), which is owned by my Alma Mater.  My room faced the foothills of the Alps, where mountain goats regularly frolicked a few feet out my window!  If ever you get a chance to go to Europe, don't neglect Austria!

What I didn't realize before I lived in Austria was just how central that nation is to the whole of Europe.  I had originally wanted to study in France (the language I'd studied) or England (the nation I -philed).  I was terribly snobby.  Even though I knew, thanks to my mother, the brilliant genealogist and resident historian, that the heart of the Holy Roman Empire post-Charlemagne had been situtated in Austria, all I ever thought it was good for was being overrun by the Nazis in The Sound of Music.

However, if you're in Austria, you can reach pretty much every nation in just an overnight train trip.  We would study for four days and then have three day weekends, which meant that I travelled all over Austria, to Poland, France, Italy, and a quick stop in Germany - while others on the campus added Romania, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Belgium to their passports.  We also had a ten-day trip, wherein I went to France (where I met gypsies and was not abducted in Paris - full story on that forthcoming!) while many others went to Spain, Portugal, Greece...and some considered going to Moscow, which they reckoned they could just make in ten days, if they spent five days travelling by train, got off on Russian soil, and turned right around to catch that same train back to Austria!

As a consequence, it's a good idea to pick up various phrases in various languages, since while most everyone speaks English now, it's a good idea to greet a shopkeeper in his native tongue to get anything approximating decent service.  (And not look like a boorish American, which you look like anyway because you're loud, enthusiatsic, and have a backpack the size of China.)

So, I'd like to present you with a List of Helpful Phrases for your own jaunt through Europe!  And if you pass by the Kartause, wave for me! (Most words spelt phonetically.)

  • I only know one word in Estonian, from my roommate, and that word is DEH-gle-dah.  Which means freckles.  This is actually not helpful.  But it's fun to say!

  • Djen-KEE-ya (Thank you)
  • Djen-DOH-breh (Good morning)
We learned these two phrases on our first trip that wasn't sponsored by the school.  For whatever reason, the train was absolutely packed.  Everyone who was anyone was going to Poland that weekend!  Somewhere around two a.m., two Polish students took pity on two of my companions and gave them space in their compartment, where they also taught them the above phrases.  They in turn taught us, and we used those two phrases to speak to everyone in Poland, meaning, variously:

  • Djen-DOH-breh!  Djen-DOH-breh!  Djen-DOH-breh! While pointing repeatedly to an item for sale and a pad of paper and your wallet, to mean, "How much does this cost?" 
  • Djen-KEEEEEEE-ya? While pointing at the picture of the Divine Mercy that we just bought, while sidling up to a likely looking family and meaning, "Can you give us directions to where Sister Faustina had visions of the Divine Mercy, please?"

  • Toilet.  (Meaning "Toilet.")
This last one is the most helpful phrase I can give to you, because it means the same everywhere.  Also, word to the wise: seek out McDonald's toilets.  They're clean, they're free, they're not weirdly-fangled.  It's like stepping into the universal American embassy.  The only better toilets are in the Vatican.  Seriously.  Beautiful.  But I digress.

  • Bitte/Danke (variations, add -schoene or -sehr to the end) This means "If you please/I'm being nice and polite" and "Thank you!"  Always learn how to say please and thank you in any language first.
  • GruB Gott! Pronounced Groos Got! or 'Scot for short, it literally means "God is Great!" which is the way you say "Hello" in Austria.  Which is another reason why Austria kicks butt.  :)
  • Entschuldigung Which sounds like Ent-SHUL-dih-gung. Which is a fancy way to say "Excuse me," which is also a very helpful phrase, since you'll need to shove your way through places a lot.  Word to the wise, though!  I got so used to saying "Entschuldigung" that when I returned to America, I couldn't remember how to say "Excuse me!"  I remember being in JFK at the very crowded baggage, and cycling through all the ways I'd learnt to say "Entschuldigung" in Europe and not being able to remember the blasted words in English!
  • Auf weidersehen Obviously, this is "Good bye!"  Curiously, you can also say Ciao everywhere.
  • Ich weiB nicht Which means "I dunno" and is pronounced (with the Austrian dialect) Ichhhhh VYSSE neekt.  Very helpful.  Especially since, usually, you won't know.  Likewise,
  • Ein bichen which means "a little bit" and sounds like ein BEESH-ehn.  This is the quick way to say "I don't really know much at all, but I'm trying!"  However, you should probably also know,
  • Ich sprache kein Deutch which means, in German, "I don't speak any German."  Along with,
  • Ich bin Americanerin which means, "I'm an American woman."  I don't recommend men using this phrase, except as a means of last resort!
  • Sprachen Sie Anglish? You guessed it! "Do you speak English?"  A wicked helpful phrase.  And the Germans and Austrians generally take pity pretty quickly on you.
  • Selbstverstandlich Which sounds like SELBST-verr-SCHTAND-leeechhhhhh, and means "Self-understoodly."  This isn't really a helpful phrase, except that our German teacher told us that it was the way to say "Yes" to a young gentleman if we were asked to dance.  He advised us to fall on the floor twitching if we wanted to say "no."
  • Mein freunds! and Mein mann!  Now, be careful here.  The first means "my friends!" the second means "my husband!" both of which can be great excuses to (respectively) 1. leave the persistent train conductor and join your friends or 2. get the nice Austrian couple to also give a lift to the guy you're travelling with.  
Fortunately in the latter case, the nice Austrian couple (who had given me a lift because I looked really Austrian - I've got one of those universally northern European faces - and I was wearing a kerchief) realized as soon as I got in the car that I was not Austrian.  They had begun chatting at me, and I said, "Entschuldigung.  Ich bin Americanerin.  Ich sprache ein bichen Deutch.  Danke danke. [Pointing at my guy friend.] Mein mann!  Danke!"  They were very nice and 1) didn't kick me out and 2) picked up my guy friend and 3) didn't laugh at the fact that I'd just apparently called my guy friend - who was studying for the priesthood and is now ordained! - "my husband" when he clearly wasn't.  God bless that Austrian couple!

Having a generally European-looking face and a fair ear for accents can be helpful, but it can also pay to have a very American look and thicker American accent.  Because on that first trip to Poland, when the six of us were looking for compartments, I got stopped by this very Prussian looking train conductor and asked something that sounded to me like, "What's going on here?  There's a compartment with a few open spaces there!"  I panicked, and said, while fleeing, "Ich weiB nicht.  Oh!  Mein freunds!  Entschuldingung!  Danke!"

A little later, while we were all crowded into a hallway (well, the guys and myself - the other two girls were chatting up the Polish students!), the German Trainconductor of the Cheekbones that could Chisel Glass, caught up with me and let off a long stream of German about Heavens knows what.  I listened blank-faced, and then said, in English, "I'm so sorry.  I don't speak actually speak German."

It's not politically correct to do so, but the Look he gave me afterwards made me almost positive that this Arian Adonis was going to go all Third Reich on me, but instead he just clenched his Square Jaw of the Gods, and left.

For the record, I've decided that he was hitting on me and I broke his heart.

Because, if not, I'm pretty sure that he was inviting me to wear the swastika.

In either case, sometimes you should throw the dictionary out the window to begin with.


Mostly, I know how to sing in Italian.  Which isn't very helpful, except when you're actually in Florence by the River Arno and the Ponte Vecchio and you can belt out O mio babbino caro which references both places...even if your aria is interrupted by (no joke) a Hari Krishna parade.  (Oh, the wacky world of travelling!)

However, here are some helpful phrases!

  • Prego like the tomatoe sauce.  It means "Please" and everything else.  Similar to "Bitte" in German, or how we used our two phrases in Polish!
  • Grazie means "Thank you" and is wicked fun to say.
  • Scuzi means "Excuse me" and is a lot shorter to say in Italian than in German!
  • Bon giorno means "Good day" and is a good way to get someone's attention.  Although you should follow it up almost immediately with "Prego."
  • Ciao means "Ta" but also "Hey...." but also "I'm wicked cool."  I can't say this without thinking either of Eddie Izzard's take on why Italians can't be fascists, or  Spike and Drucilla from Angel.  (The video for Angel is awful on YouTube, you can see it about 5:30 on Netflix or Hulu.)
  • Quento coste? (or however one spells it) means "How much is this?"  Make sure you jiggle the thing you want to buy a lot while pushing your way through so the vendor can see that you really want to buy it.  Repeating phrases often also helps.
  • Libre? Which means "Is this free?"  Very helpful for when you're on trains and asking whether a seat is free...or the bathroom is free.  Interesting story, so I was on the train back from one of my trips to Italy (I liked Italy), and was headed to the bathroom at the back of car.  Standing there was a bunch of soldiers from some country.  I was very tired at this point (it was a late train) and I asked them "Excuse me?  Is this free?" but by this point I was so tired, I wasn't sure quite what language I was speaking.  All I remember, as they said (in whatever language I'd just spoken), "Yup!  No one's in there.  Go ahead," and I went in and shut the door behind me, was one of the men turning to the other man and saying in some language, "She speaks [whatever bloody language it was]!"  Sleep-deprivation: the universal translator.
  • Sinestre "To the left." Helpful when you're pointing at a map to a local and repeating a name place.  If you hear "sinestre" it means "to the left."  I forget what "to the right" means.  Regardless, you should know that many people in Italy think it's rude not to give directions to someone who asks for them...even if the person giving directions doesn't know how to get you there.  As a consequence, you're probably better off with a map, a compass, and a sense of adventure.

My French accent is apparently very Parisian, which brings with it a whole adventure - that I'll get to next week - but in the meantime, I'll give you some basic phrases that will help you out quite a bit:

  • Bonjour! "Hello" (lit. Good Day!)  Say this to shopkeepers as you enter.  Otherwise they won't help you out at all.  Unless you're in central France.  All is forgiven in central France.
  • Auvoir! "Good-bye."  Less necessary to say, but easy enough, so use it!
  • Ou est-ce que la/le/les "Where are the...?" fill in the blank.  I know French looks funky written down, so Ooooh ESS-eh-kuh la/le/le.  Typically, you can also draw pictures, use mime, or just the English word to fill in the blank!
  • Merci (beaucoup) "Thank you (very much)."  Do not pronounce this as "mercy."  You will get the Gallic death-stare.  Try mair-SEE!  In general, the more you try to sound like Pepe LePeu, the more accurate your accent.
  • S'il vous plait "If you please," pronounced SEAL voo play.  It's like prego and bitte, but not used as much.  If you would want to say "please" in English, use this phrase instead.  (In Italian and German you're well off if you surround whole phrases with prego's and bitte's.)
  • De rien "It's nothing" said, Deh REE-ehn.  It's a quick way to say "You're welcome."  However, I prefer the almost never-used ultra-formal, Je vous en prie! (Dje VOOZ-ehn PREE!).  Again, really only use it in central France.  Central France is the best.  And their cows are pretty.
  • QUOI?!?!?! "What?" Pronounced QUAAH?  A great way to express outrage.  Or just to ask someone to repeat something.
  • Parlez vous Anglais? "Do you speak English?" Pronounced Pahrl-ay VOOZ ahn-GLAY?  Make sure you don't say this as an opening line!  Then the French will be very French to you!
  • Combien coute? (Actually, I forget out how spell this!) It means, "How much?" and try not to be floored by the price they show you.  Bring money to Paris.  Lots of money.
And now, because the men of France are amorous.  Do not say "Oui" to "Voulez vous couche avec moi ce soir" but rather say:

  • Non. No.
  • Pas de tout.  Not at all.  (Pah deh TOOT!)
  • Regard!  La singe est sur la branche!  Look!  A monkey is on the branch!  (Regard!  La SING ay sir la branch!) Courtesy of Eddie Izzard.  A lovely opportunity to point at something and run away!
  • Ich sprache kein Deutch.  Good for confusing the hell out of 'em.
  • Vive la revolution!  More convincing when wielding a weapon.
  • Vous avez la tete du couchon et la derierre du chien! You have the head of a pig and the bum of a dog!  VOOZ-avay la teht doo coo-SHON ay la DARE-ee-yair doo SHEE-ehn.
And, what every delicate young woman should know:
  • And, what I ought to have said to the fellow who didn't quite abduct me: Va te faire foudre.  Pronounced Va teh fair FOO-druh.  Which means, as one might expect, "Go f*(% yourself"  A very useful phrase.  That every woman of sense who travels to Paris ought to know.
So what other phrases should we add to our lexicon!  Leave a comment and let us know!


  1. I've only gotten through your German-English dictionary and incidents, Emily--I'll have to come back for the Italian and French sections later.

    And I think you probably did break his heart. Just think, he could have been dein Mann!

  2. It's a dictionary...meant to be read in any order at any time! And, *sigh* I know. Oh, Sven! I hardly knew ye!


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