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The problem of ordering two drinks instead of one due to linguistic difficulties and/or cultural misunderstandings

(1) A Cathay Pacific Flight between Hong Kong and Sydney – July 1987

Michael’s mother: “I would like a Coke”
Michael “I would like a Coke, too
Flight attendant “Ah… Two”.
(Three glasses of Coca-Cola arrive soon afterwards).

(2) An expat bar in Maputo, Mozambique – February 2007.

Michael: “Two-Em”, please. Michael points to a beer tap marked “2M”. Of course, the name of the beer is actually pronounced “Dos-Em”, this being a Portuguese speaking country. The number “Two” is understood, as English is probably the predominant language spoken by expats in Maputo, which is unsurprising given the nature of the world and the proximity to South Africa. However, the beer is named “Dos-Em”. That is different.

Two beers are thus placed in front of Michael. He smiles, and hands over a large enough banknote to pay for both of them.

(3) A (literally) underground music club, Cluj-Napoca, Romania – December 2009.

A heavy metal band has been followed by a slightly less heavy metal guitar band with a (good) female lead singer. This is definitely Dale Amon’s sort of place. Michael is sitting at a table. He is approached by a waitress.

Michael: “Timisoreana, thanks”. Timisoreana is a beer from the beautiful city of Timisoara, perhaps a hundred klicks away, but the beer is widely available throughout Transylvania.
Waitress: “Da”. Romanian is a Romance Language, but contains a lot of vocabulary from the Slavic languages, including the word for yes. Given the history and ethnic composition of the country, it probably contains a fair few Germanic and Finno-Uguric words too, but I am not expert enough to know for sure. Michael sits for about two minutes. Another waitress approaches. She says something in Romanian, which Michael does not understand but undoubtedly translates as “What can I get you?”
Michael: “I have already been served by somebody else”
Waitress: “Ah, Ursus“. Ursus is a beer produced locally in the city of Cluj Napoca, which (like Timisoreana, and for that matter 2M) belongs to the giant multinational brewing leviathan SAB Miller. The brewery does a rather good dark beer, too. The German ethnic minority have left their mark on this part of Europe. Michael waits another two minutes. Two waitresses return, more or less simultaneously, one with a Timosoreana, and the other with an Ursus. They look at one another in slight confusion. Michael smiles as broadly as possible – not generally difficult when faced with young Romanian women – pays a ridiculously small sum of money to each of them, and finds himself with two beers.

This sort of thing might happen slightly less frequently if I were not a monolingual Anglophone. Or perhaps not. And if it did, I am not sure if it would make things more or less fun. But I love traveling, and one of the most important principles of my kind of traveling is that it is important to have mastered the ancient Confucian principle of going with the flow.

And the problem of having accidentally purchased two beers instead of one is generally a relatively easy one to deal with.

38 comments to The problem of ordering two drinks instead of one due to linguistic difficulties and/or cultural misunderstandings

  • Lovely anecdote, read it with a smile.

  • Nuke Gray

    If we just forced everyone to speaks Esperanton, then we would already be in Paradise, and Michael wouldn’t have a drinking problem!

  • It can be just as much fun to speak the local language when the locals don’t know it. . .

  • But… but… but… Nuke, you fool, you seem to think Michael sees this as a ‘problem’!!!

  • Nuke Gray

    ‘The problem’ is the start of the name of this thread, Perry! Not everyone thinks of Alcoholism as a chosen lifestyle!

  • Tedd

    Reminds me of one of my favourite bits by Wayne & Shuster (an old, Canadian comedy duo):

    Julius Caesar goes into a bar.

    Caesar (to the bartender): I’ll have a martinus.

    Bartender: Sir, don’t you mean martini?

    Caesar: If I want two, I’ll ask for two!

  • Hmph, I hardly think getting two drinks instead of one is sign of incipient alcoholism.

    Kanpai! Cheers! Bottom’s Up! Yam Seng! And whatever else, but after work, eh? 🙂

  • Riff

    Ask for a coke in Puerto Banus and you get some very funny looks!

  • Not a pedant

    If I was a pedant, I’d point out that the Portuguese for two is actually “Dois”, but luckily I’m not.

  • And if I was a pedant, I would point out that I am attempting to spell out to English speakers how the name of the beer is pronounced, not how it is spelled in Portuguese.

    However, as I am not a pedant either, I will not do that.

  • RW

    Visiting an ex-pat chum in Shanghai in 87, he taught me a few chinese phrases. I was amused to discover I’d learnt “bring me a couple of bottles of beer” and proceeded to leave a trail of astonished waiters around the country. Liang ping!

  • Well, actually you learned a far shorter (and far more to the point) phrase, approximately “Two beers!”

    Far safer beverage anyway, beer, and cheaper than Coke or bottled water.

  • Be safer: liang roobende ping.

    Or more dangerous: liang her-chee-er ping! Ha!

  • Andrew K

    At a buffet in Zurich Hauptbahnhof, early 1980s. I asked for “Ein Glas Bier, bitte”. I got a glass of beer and a pizza!

  • Andrew: I didn’t get that…

  • “If I was a pedant, I’d point out that the Portuguese for two is actually “Dois”, but luckily I’m not.”

    And if I were a pendant (which I am) I would point out that “two” in Portuguese depends upon whether the thing you want two of is masculine or feminine.

    Thus “dois cigaros”, two cigarettes and “dues cervejas”, two beers.

    Much fun can be had in Hungarian (also spoken in Transylvania) with the difference between sor and sor (imagine a little umlaut over the o there in the second).

    I’ll leave someone else to explain that one….

  • Tanuki

    Ask for Dry Martini in Germany and they bring you three!

  • Mi amas bieroj… Estas bona trinkajxo.

  • Laird

    “If I was a pedant, I’d point out that the Portuguese for two is actually “Dois”, but luckily I’m not.”

    And if I were a pedant I would point out that the sentence is in the subjunctive mode so the proper word is “were”, not “was”.

    But who cares when there’s beer involved?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Pedants of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your lives.

  • AndrewWS

    If I were a pedant, I would write “If I were a pedant” rather than “If I was a pedant”. But I’m not. Er …

  • The Ambling Dutchman

    Nuke Gray:

    and Michael wouldn’t have a drinking problem!

    Some people seem to think that you imply that Michael should curb his drinking.

    I infer from your statement that you think that Michael could write as eloquently while being sober.



  • How did we get from “I had two glasses of beer while watching some live music” to “drinking problem”, anyway? The club in question also does pretty decent food, and I had a good Bolognese pizza as well. I will not even try to deny that I have an Italian food problem, however.

  • Kevin B

    Muphry is getting a good outing on this thread.

  • Sunfish

    Knock it off with the linguistic and grammatical purity, or the esperanto people are coming back (And they’ll probably insist on discussing LVT. In Esperanto. While getting their thetans adjusted. You haz a warned.)

    It seems to me that, a person who wishes to abstain from that beautiful, magical drink constructed from barley and H. lupulis and S. cerevisae would not have ordered even one, much less two. And I don’t see where having two beers brought by two young Romanian women as being less desirable than having one beer brought by one young Romanian woman.

    Quite the reverse, truth be told. Unless we’re to be subjected to a ‘ binge drinking’ lecture. In which case, I think I’m going to need a drink.

  • Reminds me of a time when I lived in Zurich and a friend came to visit. Keen to try out some German he asked for “zwei bier” only his accent wasn’t so good and (I think) they assumed he was speaking English, so we got five beers. (Don’t worry, we managed to drink them all.)

  • Richard Garner

    At big enough gigs (i.e. at Rock City) I would get two beers for myself at the bar each time anyway. When it takes half an hour to get through to be served, its just not worth buying one at a time!

  • Languages where the noun is declined will solve this problem:-

    Jeden pivo
    Dwe piva
    Tri (or more, such as devet) piv

  • RAB

    Whos round is it?

    Could you smoke in there Michael?
    And are you going to do a photo roundup of all the places you’ve been this year, just to make us all jealous as hell like?

  • In Icelandic, the numbers one to four are declined differently depending on gender, case, and in some cases single or plural (ie you use a different word for one if you are saying “one pair of socks” than when you are saying “one sock”). Thus, if you want two beers, the problem is which word for two do you use.

    However, this all stops when you get to numbers above four, and the simple thing is to therefore just order five beers.

    I guess they didn’t have this problem before the legalisation of beer in 1989.

    RAB: Yes, you can smoke in there, although I don’t smoke myself. And yes, the yearly photo roundup will be posted towards the end of the month.

  • Michael Jennings asked:

    How did we get from “I had two glasses of beer while watching some live music” to “drinking problem”, anyway?

    You drink beer. That’s the problem. :-p (I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t like carbonated beverages.)

    As for my “two drinks” story, I was in Sint-Truiden, Belgium, once with my German relatives, and the only language we had in common with the waiter was German. I made the mistake of asking for “ein zweites Glas”, and promptly got two glasses. My cousin made the point of putting up one finger to show how many drinks he wanted….

  • To expand on Tanuki’s joke…

    A German walks into a bar in London and orders:
    -Martini, bitte.
    -Dry? – asks the bartender.
    -Nein, zwei.

    And a real anecdote. This young Slav college student in the US, in his second week in the country, understands what people say (mostly), but they (mostly) fail to understand what he says, due to the peculiarities of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) training behind the iron curtain. So, in the (THE, not A) local bar, the aforementioned student, over the blaring jukebox, elbows his way to the bar. He decides that verbal communication is pointless, points to the beer tap and raises index and middle finger, convinced that he is ordering two beers – for himself and an attractive lady. He gets, to his mild (prior alcohol consumption!) astonishment, two pitchers of beer, each equivalent to 4 pints.

    No weird foreigners or attractive local ladies were hurt during this incident – in fact, good time and laughs were enjoyed by all.


  • No weird foreigners or attractive local ladies were hurt during this incident

    They seldom are, in my experience. Much amusement is often had.

    Another common experience is the following. You communicate to the barman/waiter that you would like a beer via some combination of pointing and/or knowing a couple of local words. Having done that, you get a rapid stream of the local language thrown back at you. This clearly translates as “Which of the 57 kinds of beer that we offer and 34 different glass sizes would you prefer?” The answer of course is “Use your judgement and don’t take advantage of me by giving me anything unnecessarily large and expensive, and as long as you do that, I will be happy”, and the best answer is for them to give you what one of their regular local customers would have. I prefer that they do not try to make any assumptions about what I want because I am a foreigner. Generally I like to do as the locals do, and assumptions about me as a foreigner are often wrong. (For instance, it is sometimes assumed that as I am English I want beer in a large (pint) glass. In fact I am Australian, and Australians do not generally drink beer in large glasses).

    Actually, you have just brought back a memory of an experience I had in Prague in 1992. I was dining with a young television journalist from California, who I had met along the way. He decided that he wanted to order the chicken, but did not know how to say “chicken” in Czech, and thus decided to order it by doing an impression of a chicken. He did this full on, with clucking noises, bending and flapping his arms so they looked vaguely like wings, and more. The waiter found this amusing, and it managed to spread. I went to the bathroom about 30 minutes later, and had to pass the kitchen in order to do so. By this point the kitchen staff were themselves doing chicken impressions followed by bursts of hysterical laughter.

  • jack savage

    always…keep it simple…..

  • Knock it off with the linguistic and grammatical purity, or the esperanto people are coming back (And they’ll probably insist on discussing LVT. In Esperanto. While getting their thetans adjusted. You haz a warned.)

    Randians, the lot of them.

  • Kim du Toit

    MJ makes several excellent points. In the first place, an ounce of preparation can exclude much confusion and many problems. I always try to learn the basic phrases of the country I’m visiting long beforehand. The basic phrases?
    “Please excuse my horrible [insert language].”
    “One (or two, or three) dark beer(s), please.”
    “J&B and water, with ice, please.”
    “Where are the toilets?”
    “One double room for one night.”
    “Get your hand off my wife’s bum, you filthy bastard.”

    I’ve travelled to eight non-English speaking countries armed with just those, and so far, so good.

    I even get by in Wiltshire with them, although I often need to add something about sheep when I’m there.

  • As long as it’s not a camel…

  • Alisa: Why not? Camels may have stinky spit, but some women have fairly bad halitosis too…