In Moscow, the Cyrillic letters on the menu imposed an impossible challenge to convert to anything approaching understandable. My friend there got so frustrated he bounded from the table, headed to some nearby diners and literally starting pointing at what he wanted for the waiter to take his order.
It’s not polite to ever do this, and this happened during the communist era. The restaurant had painted frescos on high ceilings, a white gloved wait-staff, tablecloths and musicians. In those days, the only people that could eat out at such a place were sure to be leaders of the Communist Party. My friend’s actions made me feel like crawling under the table and he probably narrowly escaped being arrested.
The menu was in Spanish, translated from Thai, during a recent visit to a Thai restaurant for lunch in Panama City. Even Panamanians have trouble with the menu. That’s what makes this situation fun. The wait-staff would translate things that we pointed to into Spanish, but many of the words were for Thai foods that native Spanish speakers are not familiar with.
We ordered. The food was delicious. Most of the time, if you don’t speak the language, you probably aren’t going to enjoy being invited to someone’s home to eat. Conversation can be challenging. A restaurant might be a better bet. You can always get a suggestion from your fancy hotel of a restaurant that is used to serving tourists. Of course, it won’t be too much of an immersion in the local culture.
So, if you simply want to eat and are not interested in eating fancy, here are some suggestions about eating out in countries where you don’t speak the language and are timid about exploring on your own (remembering, many think that is the essence of travel).
1. Where available, the Internet can provide some relief. Even where available, Internet connectivity around the world is iffy. But it offers the possibility of using one of many translator apps on your smartphone to help communicate. That can be fun for some people. For others, frustrating. But no matter what, it’s tiring. And many of the translations are nothing short of hilarious.
2. Cafeterias are a good bet. You can see the food you order.
3. Another helpful tip is to go to a restaurant that displays pictures of the food on the menu or on the wall. Sometimes dishes themselves will be on display. Typically, in a bakery, coffee shop or supermarket you can see the food this way.
4. You can also stick with simple foods that don’t vary from one place to another, such as pizza, a popular dish everywhere in the world, but not necessarily local cuisine.
5. You can go to a fast food brand restaurant that you know — not really recommended if you want to immerse in the foreign culture you’re visiting. Nevertheless, even the famous brands have their own local color and some local dishes that is interesting to see.
6. You can seek out an American food restaurant. You’ll understand the menu, but you’ll miss out on the fun of exploring new foods.
7. Finally, you can eat in your hotel. Hotels typically cater to a certain clientele. For example, some hotels have mostly European guests; some have mainly American guests. A hotel where mainly Americans stay will likely have an English menu. And it will be safer than going out when you cannot even speak enough to tell a taxi driver where you want to go.
Of course, if you are flexible, it doesn’t really matter what food you are served. You won’t starve; you’ll certainly find something you can eat, such as bread. Have fun with it. The unexpected is what makes travel fun.