Most things in the Middle East you can navigate even with a language barrier. Want a post office? Show the taxi driver an addressed envelope. When I needed dental floss, I just mimed flossing my teeth to the store clerk.
But it doesn’t always work. Last time I was in a regional airport, I asked 5 different ‘information kiosk’ people if the airport had a certain shop, everyone said “no.” And of course the shop was there. Sometimes stores can be tough. You walk into the pharmacy, ask for Q-tips, are told the store doesn’t carry them so you walk around, find them and show them to the clerk. “Oh,” he says, “buds.” Buds? What the &^$*#? And there is no way to act out marshmallow fluff.
But if you want real linguistic trauma, if you want to turn yourself into a shrieking fiend, go to a plant nursery. I know you are thinking: Oh the joys of a tropical plant nursery, the rustle of palm fronds, the air thick the scent of citrus trees, mint, guava and gardenias. Well yes, there are dozens of large, bushy green growing things behind which all the clerks are hiding so you wander forlorn, looking for assistance amidst the heady smell of 12 kinds of jasmine and a Rangoon creeper that appears to be eating a concrete wall. There is bougainvillea (covered with thorns), oleander (poisonous), hundreds of mosquitos, papayas drop on your head from high above, bees swarm around the almond trees and you have this kind of conversation ad infinitum:
Do you have lime trees? No
Are you sure? Yes
Is this tree here a lime tree? Yes
Is it for sale? Yes
Can I buy it? Yes
How much is it? Yes
How about I give you this much? No
True, sometimes you get a charming gentleman clerk and you can mime your way through (I bring the flowers or fruit of the plant I want) but sometimes it all goes horribly wrong.
You find a hibiscus in exactly the shade you want but the clerk doesn’t know the price of the pot so he won’t sell it to you. You try to just buy the plant but the pot “is coming with.” Can he call the manager? No money on his phone. Can you call the manger on your phone to get the price? No, the manager won’t answer because he doesn’t know the phone number. You give the clerk a phone card to recharge his phone, he calls. The manager’s phone is switched off. Checkmate. You announce you will come back the next day and…. the clerk you talked to is gone, the plant has been moved to an undisclosed location and wander around like a deranged person calling for your lost hibiscus. This has happened to better people than you. More than once.
You find a new-to-you tropical plant, it has a price, you have paid the price and have loaded it into your car, now you just need a few details:
Does it need shade? Yes
Complete shade? Yes
Does it need full sun? Yes
Should I water it once a week? Yes
Should I drown it in water every day? Yes
Should I drown you in water? No, ma’am! What are you saying ma’am? That is not good talk. I am trying to help you and you are not being polite.
I bought a bag of peat moss once, took it home, cut off the top of the bag and upended it into a pot: a 10-inch centipede came tumbling out. And let’s not discuss what happened to the basil.
You vow, vow I say, never to step foot in a nursery again, but then there is a sand storm, an unexpected rain storm, a swarm of locusts and the garden is looking a little peaked and off you go, in equal parts trepidation and hope. Can you escape with both your sanity and a nice little mango tree? Bonne chance, Darling, bonne chance.