`Post office?'

IT is not very original to mock at foreign phrase books, and it is arguable that English literature would be the poorer without its oft-quoted ``Look, our postilion has been struck by lightning!'' and its ``Who is this lady disguised as a druidess?'' All the same, I would like to renew a plea for a publisher to concoct an entirely new form of phrase book, mostly monosyllabic, possibly ungrammatical, but much more useful than the present lot on sale. By which I mean that the average traveler does not want to grapple with long, involved sentences, with irregular verbs and varying tenses. He has no desire whatever to say, ``Would you have the goodness to direct me to the nearest post office?''

All he wishes to do is get there, and to advance his cause the only thing he needs to do is to waylay some intelligent-looking person and say ``post office?'' in the correct language, pointing meanwhile in various directions. If he knows ``right,'' ``left,'' and ``thank you,'' he surely has a reasonable chance of purchasing a stamp before nightfall.

Phrase books are far too verbose. It is extremely useful to know the Spanish for chicken and the French for chili con carne, for there is nothing gives one a greater sense of inferiority than not being able to read a menu. It is an excellent plan to know how to ask for another spoon, and for the check, please. What is not necessary, to my mind, is to learn how best to argue with the headwaiter about the relative merits of his tables, this one being too near the door, that one too near the window.

Hotel life is usually explored in far too deep a depth, with requests for duvets to be swapped for blankets, sheets to be aired, rooms to be quieter, and so on. Whereas all you need to know is how to say, ``Come in'' (always omitted from phrase books), or ``Wait a minute!'' with a few nouns listed such as ``pillow,'' ``bath plug,'' and ``light,'' the deficiencies of which can be illustrated to a member of the staff with a thumbs down sign.

For some reason phrase books always expect you to be exploited and put upon. In the category of Useful Everyday Phrases they never teach you to say ``How lovely!'' ``What a beautiful view!'' ``That was a delicious meal!'' No. Abroad, it seems, is a place whose inhabitants are determined to make visitors as unhappy and uncomfortable as possible. On every page one is taught to stand up for one's rights. ``This food is not fresh.'' ``We shall certainly complain to the manager!'' ``There is a terrible draft!'' ``Get me a good lawyer!''

It seems we have to be on the qui vive for insults; and the anticipation of disaster that runs like a fretful thread through the text makes one wonder, as one earnestly studies it before taking off, whether it would not be better to cancel the trip altogether.

Publishers, please: just a few vital words that can be accompanied by gestures, and a happier, more confident approach to travel? Thank you. Merci. Danke sch"on. Grazie. Gracias. Spasiba. Tack.

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