Don't be fooled. If 4 million Americans visit England this year, as predicted, it won't be to watch the changing of the guard. It will be merely a matter of communication.
English is the easiest "foreign" language for Americans to learn. And once they get the hang of words like "lift" and "nappy," and learn to misspell certain other words like "colour" and "grey," they are free to wander from one end of England to the other, secure in the knowledge that if they need something they will be able to ask for it.
Cross the English Channel, however, and it's another matter. The average American, loaded down with French phrase books and dictionaries, sometimes still has trouble finding the right word.
It was in Paris during a recent three-country vacation that I discovered in a fit of desperation how pictures can be a simple answer to the language gap.
I had found myself loaded down with a heavy accumulation of books, pamphlets and extra clothing. It became clear that I must ship some of it home or risk serious back problems. The mailing boxes that the post office sold me were flat sheets of cardboard with instructions for assembling printed in French.
With little help from my dictionary, I finally figured out how to put the boxes together, and it was clear that they needed wrapping paper and string for support. I approached the front desk clerk. As anticipated, her expression was a classic example of French compassion for the hopelessly handicapped. By now, every French word I knew had gone out of my head. Desperate, I pulled out my pocket notebook and drew a quick picture of a box, a piece of wrapping paper and a ball of string.
"Ah, oui!" she cried. Beaming, she disappeared and returned seconds later with both paper and string.
Fortified by my communication breakthrough, I decided to test picture power in another critical area. Paris is one of the great cities in the world for pampering yourself. Even if a woman's budget is limited, the skills of the average Parisian hairdresser can make her feel like Helen of Troy. It is all a matter of communication. You must explain exactly what you want; otherwise, the hairdresser may try to make you look fashionable. This year, a person risks coming out looking like a moussed-up Mohawk Indian.
Armed with another drawing, I headed for the salon next to the hotel, where I was turned over to Chantal, a fetching young woman wearing trim black tights under a huge rumpled white linen jacket that reached nearly to her knees. She eyed me suspiciously.
"J'ai besoin d'un shampooing," I said. "Et connaissez-vous le blow-dry, Chantal?" Turning to the manager, she raised her eyebrows and made a helpless little gesture in my direction. He came over to our station.
"I need to have Chantal blow-dry my hair," I said.
"Blehw-ddreye?" He sounded exactly like Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. "Blehw-ddreye?" Hopefully, I handed him my drawing. He frowned for a moment and then burst out laughing. "Ah, oui! Je comprends! Regardez, Chantal. C'est dro le, n'est-ce-pas?" Chantal glanced at it, grinned, nodded and confidently began to brush my hair.
By this time, the rest of the staff was passing around my drawing. They offered me a glass of wine, a plate of macaroons and a lapful of French tabloids. An hour later, after a dazzling demonstration of blow-drying by Chantal, my wiry, impossible hair hung sleek and silky to my shoulders.
Drawings are a terrific way of communicating when you can't speak the language. In fact, I learned later that others have not only made the same discovery, but there are now a few products available for those who prefer ready-made pictures. (One, called Trip Talk, manufactured by Zanmar Inc., 43 Lincoln Ave., Orange, N.J. 07050, offers five color-coded categories -- people, places, things, food and pharmacy -- hinged in a small case that fits in a pocket. It costs $20 leatherbound or $14 with vinyl cover, postpaid.)
Anybody can draw if he doesn't take himself too seriously. A few suggestions:
Keep things light; invent symbols instead of trying to be literal. (There are successful symbols all around you -- on road signs, restroom doors and above the seats in airplanes.) Be playful; add facial expressions and absurd details. One of the drawbacks of being unable to speak a foreign language is the inability to make or appreciate a joke. Even a clumsy drawing can be a real icebreaker.