Two years ago, I was in Rome scouring the tourist-swarmed city for specks of authenticity, places where I didn’t hear English.
At one point, I stumbled upon Cul de Sac, a tiny cafe spilling onto a sun-kissed patio, where people sipped wine and smoked cigarettes. No one was speaking English. It was perfect.
Having practiced my Italian religiously, I was happy to communicate free from English, too. I ordered a glass of vino bianco and a dish of roasted octopus. (When in Rome, right?)
At least that’s what I thought. It turned out I had gotten “polpo” (octopus) and “polpette” (meatballs) mixed up. Instead of a seafood lunch, I was staring at ground meat, a problem since meatballs contain gluten, to which I’m intolerant. Embarrassed, I pushed my meal around the plate. The server wanted to know what was wrong, but my Italian didn’t stretch that far, either.
Most travelers who aren’t fluent in 10 languages have experienced a similar plight. But with technology companies ever striving to solve problems once thought impossible, barriers are melting away. Case in point: an invention scheduled to hit the public next May. Pilot looks like a set of ear buds. Put one bud in your ear and the other in the ear of a foreign speaker and voilà — uh, that’s “here you go” in English — the person’s words are translated in your ear in real time, and vice versa ($299; waverlylabs.com).
Suddenly, it feels like the travel game is about to change. The cons? You have to convince a stranger to don the earpiece before you can explain what the heck you’re talking about. Also, it’s nice to occasionally learn languages the way we had to learn directions before we sold our souls to Google Maps.
Regardless of whether Pilot catches fire, it lends credence to the dream of a boundless world where a friend might just as easily be made in Bulgaria as in one’s hometown. And as a bonus, you won’t end up with meatballs instead of octopus.
Amelia Rayno writes about food and travel for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @AmeliaRayno.