My junior high Spanish teacher seemed fascinated with making sure her young charges knew three things by the end of seventh grade: How to introduce yourself, how to ask where the bathroom is, and how to conjugate verbs. There was one vital life skill that should have been included in that list; how to order food.
It seems like a fairly straightforward operation. You find the McDonald's in the foreign city of your choice and you say, "Big Mac and a Coke." You lay down your money, pick up your food, and off you go. Not so fast. I've traveled all over South America, in Europe, and Asia, and found ordering food to be a challenge, no matter how good I am (or think I am) at the language.
In Paraguay I was asked (in Spanish) if I wanted a hamburguesa completas. Even a dolt can figure that one out. Sure I want a complete hamburger. Incomplete hamburgers might be missing a bun or the mustard or who knows what. What I got was a hamburger with a fried egg on it. At the American Pizza (which looked like a Pizza Hut, but the resemblance stopped there), I saw an American Pizza on the menu. It was their specialty. I ordered it, only to find it was a pizza covered in boiled egg, tomatoes, peas, and carrots. The peas and carrots were the kind you find in a can labled Del Monte. Yum.
The problem with ordering food in a foreign language isn't just placing your order. It's the ten thousand questions that inevitably follow in rapid-fire succession. Do you want that with fries? Can I supersize your drink? Was that with mayo or mustard? Did you want radishes on that? And even in foreign lands where English is common, it's not much better. In Vancouver I asked for a pizza with Canadian bacon on it. You'd think that would be a slam dunk. Nope. The waitress stared at me. "You want bacon on your pizza? Seriously?"
"You're in Canada. If you get it here, it's pretty much gotta be Canadian bacon. So you want a bacon pizza?"
"We've already been down this street. What else you want on it?"
"Bacon and pineapple?"
At this point my wife intervened and asked if they had ham. "Sure, and that would taste a lot better than bacon if you're putting it with pineapple."
In Tokyo I walked into a Denny's. "Grand Slam, please."
The waitress, who clearly had taken lessons from the gal in Vancouver, said, "Gran Slam? Gran Slam baseball?"
"Yep. With two eggs and bacon. Grand Slam."
The waitress went over and got the manager. He approached tenatively. "Grand Slam?"
"Yessir. Grand Slam."
He began using sign language, his English being only marginally better than my Japanese. I was pretty sure he was taking me to the acrylic food display found in the windows of all Japanese restaurants so I could point to which Grand Slam I wanted. Instead, he leads me outside, bows deeply, and says, "Most sorry, but we not play baseball here. This restaurant. Baseball in Tokyo Dome. That way."
Undeterred, I pointed at the correct choice in the window and said, "That. That's a Grand Slam."
"Oooooh! You call that Gran Slam?"
"In America, that's what we call it. Grand Slam."
"Ooooooh. In Japan, we call that pancakes."
The local burger place wasn't any better. They have combo meals in Japan, but they are called sets. So I ordered, "One set."
Two hamburgers, one drink, and something faintly resembling fries were laid on a tray. I removed the second hamburger and said, "One set. Not two set."
The manager was again brought over and I repeated, "One set. Not two set."
He said, "Set set or one set?"
Turns out, in Japanese, you don't order one set. You order set. If you want two, then you say two set. But one set is just set. Who knew? An hour and a half later, after the district manager and the American embassy had all been summoned to sort the mess out, I was seated and eating the two hamburgers, one drink, and order of pseudo-fries we started with.
My advice on ordering food in foreign lands? Take cheese and crackers in your suitcase. You're gonna need them.