Finally, realising we were ignorant of not only the Romance languages and German but most likely Bothno-Ugaric tongues as well, they decided to try English.
While they actually said: "Do you speak English? Can we borrow your rubber mallet?" I'm sure what they wanted to say was:
"Do you poor idiotic types perhaps know a few words of English, the native tongue of poor idiotic types everywhere? And do you linguistic amoebas have a rubber mallet we could borrow for a few moments to complete the sturdy erection of our award-winning European-designed tent?"
It was the moment I realised just how impoverished we are not sharing borders with any other countries, and just what a good thing immigration is.
Since that humbling experience I have tried to learn a few bits and pieces of various languages and am happy to report that if someone ever says to me: "El cajero antomatico se ha tragado mi tarjeta de credito," I can answer, with all confidence, "Tengo un pinchazo."
But none of this European phrasebook readiness prepared me for reading Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, which I can describe, with all confidence, as vastly incomprehensible.
May I give you the opening sentences?
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.
O...kay; I thought perhaps the second paragraph might make more sense:
Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood...
I did what I always do in situations of complete incomprehension: I quickly downed several glasses of wine and skipped to the end of the book.
Bugger, plenty of 'itty' and 'oddy knocky' and 'profound shooms of lip-music brrrrrr' there too.
For all I know A Clockwork Orange is a book about the rise and fall of rubber mallets in a post-apocalyptic Florentine camping ground. I only wish there was an Anthony Burgess phrasebook.