A Multilingual Island Tour

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Yesterday, we did a Tenerife island coach tour – covering mostly the west, north and east, of the island. It picked us up about 8am from a nearby hotel. (Hence my earlier than usual blog post yesterday, in case you notice such details.) There were about 30 other people, including some Spaniards, but most on the coach seemed to be British (including Northern Irish), German, or French-speaking.

Direction signs. Shop in La Orotava. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Direction signs. Shop in La Orotava. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]

The driver, who didn’t have much to say, was Spanish. In introducing herself, the tour guide who ran the day did not offer us her nationality. She was a bit older, and full of enthusiasm, and very knowledgable about Tenerife.

She conducted the day in four languages. Every thought and observation she uttered into the microphone describing scenery, history, or what we would be doing, etc. was shared in each language one after another in succession. She would open in Spanish, repeat herself in English, follow in German, and conclude in French. Then she’d start all over again with Spanish.

After a couple of hours of listening to that, your head sometimes spins, yet it’s also amusing hearing it. I speak almost no German, but know enough Spanish and French so as to be able to generally follow along. My wife knows little Spanish but does speak lots of French and she followed that especially well.

At our lunch stop, we were given a choice: a set menu inside the pre-booked restaurant or “snacks” outdoors at plastic garden tables. We opted to eat comfortably in the restaurant, and were seated with an older couple we’d seen on the tour but with whom we hadn’t spoken. Asking us our first language, and we saying we spoke English, the jovial man broke the ice, announcing, “I speak English, but we’re Belgian.”

View of Los Gigantes and its harbor, and cliffs beyond. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]
View of Los Gigantes and its harbor, and cliffs beyond. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]

His wife, however, spoke little English. In fact, at the table, we heard her speaking German with him. Within moments, we also discerned she knew lots of French, and so did he. We must have looked a bit bemused.

“Belgium has three languages, you know: French, Hollandis (sic), and German.” We knew that already. And his sharing that fact better explained them to us: they were German (first language) speaking Belgians.

“Where do you live?” my wife asked him.

“Brussels,” he said.

We’ve been to Belgium, and Brussels is a lovely city. Yet initially in situations like those you don’t really know what to talk about with complete strangers – my wife across from his wife and he across from me. It takes a few moments – and wine helps.

View of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria. Guanche Kings statues to the left, along the waterfront. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]
View of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria. Guanche Kings statues to the left, along the waterfront. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]

As my wife opened our table’s shared red wine, and spoke French to her, the Belgian woman became more friendly and demonstrative, trying to express herself through gestures and in French. For example, rather than the salad, her husband had ordered the soup starter, apparently mishearing the Spanish server and thinking it was going to be tomato soup. When it arrived, it turned out to be pumpkin and he wouldn’t eat it.

“He’s being difficult,” she said dismissively in French. She traded her salad with him for his soup. But he didn’t eat the salad either.

For a moment, I thought this was a lot like sitting with my late mother and my father. She behaved much like my mother would have in that situation: rolling her eyes at her husband.

The main courses were more of a success. When they didn’t finish two of their Canarian small potatoes, though, she insisted I eat them. Near the end, she topped off my glass of wine and her own as well, and we all chitchatted in bits of English and in French.

I also overheard a French family from the tour sitting at the table behind us. Behind our Belgian tablemates were another French-speaking couple from the tour. A few tables away, were yet another French couple from the tour.

Not everyone inside in the restaurant from our tour was French, or French-speaking, but then and there it hit me and I laughed to myself. Talk about stereotypes: all of the French speakers (regardless of age), insofar as I could tell, had chosen the indoor, 3 courses, set menu, with wine, and proper restaurant table service. None of the French were sitting outside at the plastic garden tables, “slumming” it so to speak. Only the non-French were outside “snacking.”

Lunch finished, as we resettled into our seats on the coach, my wife let me have it: “You do that. You sure pulled out the French for her.”

“I was being polite,” I smiled.

Me, next the the Guanche kings. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by Mrs. Nello, 2016.]
Me, next the the Guanche kings. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by Mrs. Nello, 2016.]

The tour over, just before we were dropped off at the hotel near the apartment, I told my wife that I’d given up: “I’ll ask her.”

As we stepped from the coach and she said goodbye to us, I blurted out to our multilingual guide, “Okay, I couldn’t guess your nationality. What is it?”

She chuckled as she replied: “Belgian.”

After we walked away and the coach drove off, I observed to my wife, “That makes sense she was Belgian. That explains the fluent French. And the German.”

My wife noted something else as well. “Did you hear, she was usually saying more in French than in English? She seemed to embellish her descriptions more in French.”

So it turned out to be an unexpected day with…. Belgians. In the Canary Islands. In Spain. More future writing material perhaps. 😉

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