Foreign guides around Europe
August 5, 2008 9:21 PM   Subscribe

How does a 40ish year old male with enough money find his way around Europe without foreign language skills? Is it possible to hire guides to travel with, or at least to show them around on a city-by-city basis for this sort of thing? I'm thinking specifically France, Spain, Italy. Willing to use University students or some other creative possibility.

Mostly there for a holiday but may also need to talk to real agent agents about places in France or Spain.
posted by vizsla to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total)
Can't help you with the guides, but I can tell you that you don't really need one to find your way around Europe. Learn to say some basic phrases in each language (Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you, Do you speak English?) and you'll do fine without a guide. Most everyone in tourist areas speaks enough English to get you what you need. The signs are easy, the money is easy, mass transit is easy. It's really pretty simple to get around Europe and have a good time without a local guide.
posted by cnc at 9:45 PM on August 5, 2008

What cnc said.
posted by k8t at 9:47 PM on August 5, 2008

I'll third the general advice.
posted by mmascolino at 9:56 PM on August 5, 2008

Even in Eastern Europe and places where the native tongues are less linguistically connected to English, traveling alone and without a guide is no problem. Most real estate agents will speak English or direct you to an appropriate colleague.

Buy relevant copies of the Rough Guide To (wherever) and learn the basic polite phrases and you're fine, just like cnc and everyone else has said.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:02 PM on August 5, 2008

Sign up with you don't have to stay with other people if you don't want to, but they can meet you out and show you around, or just hang out and have a beer with you while you're there. It's a neat site.
posted by Craig at 10:10 PM on August 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Learn gesturing and non-verbal communication. It takes a while but is invaluable when traveling. Unless you're going to far-out places, most of them will be used to travelers and have a good idea of what a traveler might need and want.

Also if you have "enough money" you can always acquire some language skills before you go, if you have the time. Pimsleur has some really excellent audiotapes (CDs) that get you to simple conversations fast, including greetings and directions. I did the Chinese one for a very short time a few years ago and can still recognize words when watching kung fu movies.

I assume that you're talking to real estate agents about buying a house for yourself? I'd seriously consider getting some good traveling in Europe under your belt if that's your goal, especially since living in an area requires a set of skills very different than visiting an area as a tourist. You will absolutely need to develop language skills if you plan on residing somewhere long term. In addition, you will need to do tasks (buying random hardware, going somewhere to fill out a form or permit, getting a visa renewed) that require additional knowledge of the area and good "foreigner survivor skils" (the foreigner being you of course).

I would suggest getting a translator for anything involving the real estate. This translator should be hired by you, not provided by the agent, and anything legal you come across should be sent home, to a lawyer you hire, who is fluent in the target language, before it is signed.

If you really haven't traveled in Europe before using a guide, or going on a tour with others, might be an option. But you might also do well with just a guidebook as Dee says. The Rough Guide to... is probably an excellent choice for anywhere in Europe, although you should check Amazon first because certain countries have guides which are better (for a while, for example, the Frommer's Guide to China, although much less comprehensive than Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, was far better for travelers hitting the main "sights"). Avoid Lonely Planet. It used to be the best, and still generally offers the most comprehensive listing of cities in a country, but the people writing for it seem to have lost all love for travel. So many of the Lonely Planet guides now show thinly disguised contempt for the people living there (particularly the guide to China).

Basically I would recommend against buying property on your first trip to Europe. Unless you really, really know what you're doing it could be a bit messy. Visit Europe once. Go to the major cities: Paris, Barcelona, Florence, Venice, and Rome are all nice choices for "big" cities that offer plenty of people who speak English and very familiar experiences (although still new, of course). I really like going to smaller quieter places too, but be prepared for unusual foods, accommodations, and customs, and a greater language barrier.

General traveling tips, which work in any country: take time for the traditional sights, but try to absorb the culture too. For me, this means trying the local food as much as possible, especially things very specific to that season or region. In most places in Europe, each locale has a cheese, wine, dish, or other item for which it is particularly known. Stop by the local market in each town if you can. They're a great resource for lunch supplies and often the best food is in the restaurants around the market. At night, look for an old looking bar, pub, or restaurant with live music playing. It's not always the best but it's generally a better experience than the bar playing music off of a stereo. Ride the public transportation, even if you wouldn't really have to otherwise. You can make a great daytrip by looking to see if the city you're in has a nice site in one of the neighboring towns. Then you can take the local bus there. Although often slower than driving there yourself, the bus will meander through a nice slice of the area. This goes double for trains, which often offer amazing views unavailable anywhere else (if you make your way to Sicily the train along the coast east or west from Palermo is pretty stunning). You should also take public transportation in town instead of taxis if you can. This lets you rub shoulders with the locals (watch your pockets). In cities with a metro, this is often the best and fastest way of getting around, and many cities have stations with beautiful decoration or architecture.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:24 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would completely agree with those who say that European travel does not require a guide for purposes of translation. However there are plenty of circumstances when a local guide will help you get the most out of a place. At the most basic level nearly any European city of size will run some kind of guided bus tour - often the sort where you can get on and off buses on a standard route whenever you like. This can be a cheesy experience but it is a great way of quickly getting an overview of a city and finding the parts you want to return to.

Craig's mention of sites like Couchsurfing is spot on if you would like a personal guide to a place. It is also worth googling the places you plan to visit because there are often small organisations that will do custom guided tours or social programs to welcome visitors.

Finally you have specialist guided tours: people who will take you to see mountain ranges, or drive you around golf courses or show you the best spots for bird watching. In most cases these people will be able to talk English to you as well. Even if they do not sign language and the odd word can go a long way.
posted by rongorongo at 1:59 AM on August 6, 2008

Seconding cnc (learn please, hello, goodbye) and Craig (couchsurfing).

The basic words open up people who will otherwise chalk you up as another American (assuming) who doesn't speak their language, and will encourage people who have otherwise sketchy English skills to be comfortable with you.

Couchsurfing will help you get to know tourist things as well as what everyday life and hidden spots are right under your overwhelmed nose. You can definitely meet up with people just to go around, but I have had a wonderful, wonderful time being hosted by people in a bunch of countries. Paris (France is on your list) has an especially active group.
posted by whatzit at 2:59 AM on August 6, 2008

Re-noticing the fact that you might move to one of these places, you really *really* ought to sign up with couchsurfing, and stay in a few different neighborhoods that interest you and meet some people who may turn out to be long-term friends.
posted by whatzit at 3:00 AM on August 6, 2008

Also, learn how to ask for a bathroom. Learning words like left and right can seriously come in handy too.

But to be more specific - it's definitely possible to hire English-speaking guides in probably every major city in Europe. I can't direct you to any specifically, but I know of several people who've used many such services. Also, I should note that at least one of them found their guide via a translation service, so that might be an avenue if you're having trouble finding one elsewhere.

Good luck, and have a great time!
posted by Magnakai at 4:19 AM on August 6, 2008

Servas is another option for getting in touch with local people (who speak English - not everyone does, but when you get the Servas book for a country, people list the languages they speak in their entry). More about servas here
posted by handee at 6:02 AM on August 6, 2008

As others have said, you don't need a personal tour guide and can get by in most capitals with a dozen words/phrases. But if an English-speaking personal tour guide for Rome is what you're after, I recommend this lady.
posted by Martin E. at 6:07 AM on August 6, 2008

It is entirely possible to travel in France, Spain and Italy without speaking French, Spanish or Italian. If the idea of doing what practically every other tourist does terrifies you (which is a bit silly but that's fine) any decent hotel or your travel agent can arrange a guide for you, easily.

The reality is that almost everyone you are likely to encounter on the normal tourist circuit will speak at least some English. This is both good and bad but it is what it is. And in Spain and France, which are meccas for UK and Irish expats, even the estate agents will speak English. We looked at flats in Nice, and in every single estate agency we went into, every single person spoke... English.

This is all just not as big of a problem as you think it is, and if you turn up somewhere that proves to be problematic, it's easily sorted on the ground. In a hotel in a large city, the desk can arrange a guide, and in the small B&B in the back hills of wherever, the owner will have a cousin. It will work out either way.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:08 AM on August 6, 2008

There's a bit of an exception with respect to lawyering up when you make a real estate transaction in France. There, the transaction is handled by a notaire, who is the disinterested representative of the state in transactions like real estate. The notaire doesn't have a 'side'. The one I used when I bought my house in France spoke polished and cultured English. It helps to pick your notaire before you enter into any agreement.

Looking for real estate in France has its amusing side. There is no "multiple listing service" and each estate agent tries to hide details of his listings while simultaneously advertising.
posted by jet_silver at 6:50 AM on August 6, 2008

When I was stationed in Germany/Italy/Portugal I relied on Berlitz phrase books to communicate and Michelin green guides to get around.

I remember hearing a Japanese sculptor getting around Paris via the use of his handy pocket sketchbook. Whenever he needed something, he would draw a picture of it and point to it. The only problem he encountered was when he drew a Japanese-style toilet, he was directed to a shoe store (since his drawing resembled a single slipper).
posted by plokent at 7:08 AM on August 6, 2008

Hospitality Club is another site for staying with or just meeting locals. I've met people through the site and they were honest, cool people.
posted by PatoPata at 8:13 AM on August 6, 2008


You are thinking of going to live there, but you need a guide to insulate you from the place?!

Be polite; learn- please, thank you, hello, goodbye, yes, no, sorry, good, 1-10 and you will be fine. Your biggest problem will be getting people not to speak English!

Oh, and smile; be friendly, chill. If people want to speak to you they will (even if you have absolutely no common language!). If they dont then it they won't!
posted by BadMiker at 9:05 AM on August 6, 2008

In Paris (and in London) one of the things I really enjoyed was taking walking tours with English speaking guides. Most of the time I made due with my terrible French to get around Paris, but it can certainly be nice to be able to ask someone a question and know they'll understand you.
posted by garlic at 7:51 PM on August 6, 2008

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