Our Easter motorhome trip across France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to my daughter the importance of learning a foreign language. This is something I’ve been keen to impress upon her ever since the British government rescinded the rule that made it compulsory to study French to the age of 16.
Although I’m not fluent in any language other than English, I know enough French and German to communicate effectively in all the countries that we traverse this holiday. Even though many of their population will be far more proficient in my language than I am in theirs, I take pains to at open every conversation with a few words in one of the native tongues.
As always, the people I speak to are pleased to hear a tourist make an effort, no matter how feeble. When our camper van runs out of water on the Luxembourg border, I’m able to ask very politely at the nearest campsite if we may fill up our tank there, even though we’re not stopping overnight, and I negotiate a reasonable rate. The gnaediges Frau in charge is devastated when the freezing temperature prevents her standpipe from cooperating, “because you took the trouble so ask me so nicely in German”.
When continuing cold weather in Trier saps the life out of the motorhome battery, I’m able to accost the nearest motorist in an appropriate manner to ask for a jump-start.
Understanding the local road signs enables me to navigate effectively whenever roadworks stump the satnav. My husband is surprised when I explain that Einbahnstrasse means “one-way street”: he’d thought it was just a very common road name. He’d also been wondering why so many signs from different towns directed us to the unmapped resort of Umleitung. “That’s German for ‘diversion’,” I tell him.
Even so, I’m happy to opt for the English language setting on the Luxembourg City tourist train commentary. It’s accessible in any one of eight languages at the touch of a button.
On the upper deck of the open-top tourist bus in Trier, plugging my complimentary earphones into the socket on the panel in front of my knees, I flick to Option 1 for English and instruct my daughter to do the same.
On the hour-long sightseeing drive, pleasant music plays during breaks in the heavily-accented commentary. We pass breathtakingly ancient attractions: a 2,000 year old Roman bridge, still strong enough to withstand 21st century motor traffic; an amphitheatre with such precisely planned acoustics that it’s possible from the back row to hear a match struck centre stage; a beautiful Roman bath-house whose high arching walls alternate layers of brick and stone simply for decorative effect.
In between the music and the commentary comes the odd practical, deadpan aside that makes my husband and I laugh aloud:
“Please refrain from throwing anything off the top of the bus.”
What kind of tourist are they expecting? I look around for the Visigoths and Vandals that ransacked the Roman Empire, but there are none (or if there are any, they’re hiding).
Suddenly I realise my daughter did not laugh, despite this being the kind of comment that would appeal to her slapstick sense of humour. I ask her why she’s not amused.
“Well, I can’t really understand much of what the lady’s saying, because her accent is so strong,” she sighs. “All I’ve understood so far is ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’.”
I peer down at the socket for her headphones. It looks as if she’s got it set to the right channel: 1. When I borrow one of her earphones to double check, I realise what’s happened. I may not speak this language, but I know it when I hear it. She’s inadvertently tuned in to Channel 7, which looks very like Channel 1 from this angle.
“That’s Dutch!” I inform her.
Enlightenment spreads over her face and finally she starts to laugh.
“No wonder I couldn’t understand it.”
Fortunately, our hop-on, hop-off bus ticket allows us unlimited trips within 24 hours of purchase, so we go round again, this time with Laura tuned in to the English commentary. And she’s careful not to throw anything off the top of the bus.