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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

Unfazed by phrase

Pardon my French, but I'd like a dozen bananas. And I CAN lift this vehicle...

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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CURSED ARE THE GEEKS FOR they use phrasebooks. Or so I thought, until some years ago I found myself in Bangkok attempting to order a dozen bananas - in Thai. The matron at the fruit stall burst into cackles and summoned her friends. The old biddies leaned forward and strained to hear as I repeated my request.

Then they cracked up completely, rolling on the floor, slapping their thighs and guffawing loudly. The fruit lady tossed me half a dozen bananas free and instructed me to return next week and buy them only from her shop. I agreed. Each time the drama unfolded with gale-force merriment.

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Much later, while showing off my language skills to a Thai friend, the grim truth emerged. The nuances of language being wonderfully mischievous, the word for banana is dangerously similar to a less-than-genteel part of the male anatomy. It was a wonder I had not been beaten within an inch of my life with a ripe papaya.

Need a Bangkok ice-breaker? Just ask, "So how many rainy seasons have you been a monk?"

There were other gaping canyons of indiscretion and I fell into each one with monotonous regularity. For example, the words for "breast" and "milk" are remarkably similar to the untrained foreign ear, which poses considerable risk when venturing into dangerous territory. "Could your mother make me a milkshake?" is so fraught with urgent peril that only the brave or utterly foolhardy would attempt it. This should never be tried at home. Give her mother your American Express card and buy a milkshake at Starbucks.

Without further ado then, I picked up a copy of the Lonely Planet Thai phrasebook and strode purposefully into Bangkok. I hailed a taxi, opened the book, and said, fluently, "We're not French and John has never been to Chiang Mai." This was not a great success. I was trying to get to the Adventist Hospital to get my wisdom tooth pulled and no doubt my pronunciation was slurred. Nor was there any John in sight for miles. Perhaps I should have tried: "How many rainy seasons have you been a monk?" It's a pretty standard opening gambit in Bangkok. People say this to each other all the time. Thank heavens for phrasebooks.

But if you want to do it with panache, here's another line from the book. "I can lift this vehicle." Just make sure you're standing next to a bicycle and not the Sky Train when you make this boast. In Thailand, and indeed anywhere in Asia, I delight in telling people, "I am not French". This is a crucial bit of information that especially pleases immigration officials. Of course, I could easily say, "I'm Indian," but then that's so direct, in-your-face, and unsophisticated. Far better to take things slowly, one step at a time, savouring the journey and postponing the arrival. A common exchange may go something like this: "I'm not French." "Oh, are you a..." "I'm not American." "I see." "I'm not from Denmark either." "I have absolutely no interest from where you are Mr Verghese but I would like to knock out your teeth one by one with a hot iron." "Oh, okay."

The Cantonese "gau-chhaw-aah" can mean everything from "Wow!" to "Hey, Sputnik just landed on my mother-in-law"

With this sort of opening line you can really get a conversation going in any language. Thank you Lonely Planet. The only other thing you might need in Bangkok is a police whistle. This is a handy and very versatile item. Police whistles can cause traffic jams, create music, and even cure constipation if you blow long and hard enough. It is an alternative form of communication and a great stress reliever.

A policeman who leans through your car window, tweeting shrilly, is probably just enquiring, "What did you think of Phantom of the Opera?" This is your opening. Look him in the eye, smile and say, "We're not French and John has never been to Chiang Mai." Of course, if what he was really trying to say was, "Fork out Bt500 for my voluntary provident fund," then things could get sticky. Floor the pedal and get to Chiang Mai as quickly as possible.

In Hongkong you will be disappointed to find the "I'm not French" phrase missing altogether from Cantonese translation books. It will put a serious damper on your social life. Fortunately there is a fine alternative. "Gau-chhaw-aah". This can be used anywhere at any time in any context and is possibly the world's most nimble expression. It can mean anything from "Really?" to "Oh my God! Sputnik just landed on my mother-in-law."

I learned another neat phrase in Hongkong, at McDonald's. Here counter staff point at you and bark, "Mepchu." Why would any sane person want to mepch me? Don't be alarmed if people in masks attempt to mepch you. This is just the rote fast-forward version of "May-I-help-you?" Never let people mepch you, especially if you're not French. Now go ahead and lift that vehicle.

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