I’m sure that being a professional traveler looks good on the outside. I do my best to fit into cultures and present myself well on the road. But even the smoothest of cool cats make mistakes, and I’m hardly that cool. I’ve made an idiot of myself more than I even bother to keep track of.

Today I present a sort of confessional. A handful of times when I did something dumb enough to remember long term. As I write this, I realize I could keep going for days with similar stories, racked up over more than 25 years of travel. I share these awkward stories with you for one purpose, to help you remember that doing something stupid is just part of travel. I’ve gotten over it, and so will you.

Language is Hard

I will share a dirty secret with you- I am rubbish at foreign languages. School was so easy for me in every other respect, I got good grades without trying, but foreign language is what I suck at. Oh, the irony. It would have to be that I am the only person I know that actually needs to speak several foreign languages. Sigh.

Because of my perpetual battle with multiple foreign languages, I have many stories of misunderstandings and idiotic things I’ve said. I want you to know that if I can do it, so can you. Make an idiot of yourself, it’s ok. The locals appreciate the effort.

Years ago, when I was studying in Rome, I bought my fruit and veggies every day in the Campo dei Fiori. I had my regular places and felt very proud of myself for communicating my needs and understanding the responses. I happen to love peaches, and bought them almost every day. For months, I asked for “mezzo chilo di pesce” and the fruttivendolo always gave me a funny, sympathetic smile. One day I realized the word for peaches was pesche (pronounced PESS-kay) rather than pesce (PESH-ay), very similar words and only separated by a single letter. I’d been asking for months for a half kilo of fish, not peaches. D’oh.

Not as many years ago, I was working on book research, heading to the island of Capri. As I boarded the boat, I couldn’t help but notice the captain. He was muscular and tan, with an oily Julius Caesar haircut. He was like some sort of absurd Hollywood stereotype of a Roman God. He took my ticket and looked me up and down. A few minutes after departing, the hot captain came over and sat himself down next to me, handing me a beer and two plastic cups. Me? Hot guy wants to sit with me?Seriously? And then he spoke….

Italian is actually Florentine dialect. Italy is a relatively new country, and 100 years ago each region had its own unique language, sometimes indecipherable to other Italians. The dialects still persist in many parts of Italy, particularly in the south.

This is to explain that when the hot captain opened his mouth, out came a stream of deeply accented gibberish that made him sound like he had marbles in his mouth. I strained to listen and understand what he was saying. Nothing. Nada. I felt so stupid, I could not catch even a single word. He was obviously frustrated, and gestured at the beer. I split it between the two glasses and smiled apologetically. I told him “mi dispiace, non ho capito…” and he tried again and again to talk to me. Still couldn’t understand Neapolitan. “Inglese?” I offered. Eventually we both sat in awkward silence and drank our beer. I think that silence lasted about 10 years, or that’s what it felt like. Exasperated , he gave up and went back to work and I sat through the rest of the ride turning several shades of red.

Tour Guides Make Mistakes Too, But Worse

Have you ever made a wrong turn? Yeah, no big deal, you just turn around and go back the other way. But what if 26 souls (who’ve paid good money for your expertise) are following behind you? I think I die inside a little when that happens.

Once I reserved a group dinner at a restaurant in Rome near Piazza Navona. I didn’t have their number on me, so I Googled it. They didn’t seem to remember me but booked me all the same. We, 29 of us, arrived at the restaurant and they had no reservation for me. How could that be possible? My group stood there staring at me as I quietly panicked. Ok, so I asked if there could possibly be another restaurant with a similar name nearby. “Bo.” said the host, an Italian way of saying “I dunno.” I planted my group at a picturesque fountain while I canvased the restaurants on Piazza Navona, and after checking four of them, my heart was racing and I was feeling desperate. And then I saw one, and it had the exact same name as the restaurant I thought I’d reserved. Bingo! It was a tacky, touristy place, but they had chairs for us to sit in. They served something resembling Chef Boyardee pasta to eat and I was so embarrassed, but my group didn’t seem to mind since it had killer views of the fountains. Actually, I think they pretended to like it because they felt bad for me. Lesson learned, don’t trust Google.

On another occasion, when I reserved a group dinner the owner mentioned that he had another event at the restaurant that night. Was that ok? I didn’t mind. It was a big restaurant with multiple floors. Turned out, that other group was a tour from a competing company and they were seated literally inches from my group in a tight, underground room. When I say we were rubbing elbows, I mean that literally.

It was apparently their first night and the guide had a microphone, giving a noisy slideshow about their itinerary. It was our last night, where we normally say our goodbyes and give speeches, but in this case we couldn’t even hear ourselves think. The other tour guide came over to give me a piece of her mind in front of my group, how dare I eat at HER restaurant! I pointed out that I hadn’t planned the overlap and tried to say something funny to cut the tension. She didn’t think I was funny, but once I mentioned who I worked for she immediately became more friendly and gave me her card…hoping for a job recommendation. Ummm. No. I don’t know who was more humiliated that night– me, the other tour guide, or the staff that had to deal with both of us.

One morning, after a night spent having a little too much fellowship with my tour guide colleagues, I sleepily led my group on the well worn path down into the Rome subway and the Vatican beyond. We boarded the subway, and as usual, I asked the group to split up into different cars so it was easier to get on.

Packed into train cars and chatting with the handful that stayed with me, something seemed off. The car wasn’t as full as it should have been. And then it dawned on me…we were going the wrong direction. Rather than panic, I searched for my group, counting them down as I went, and got them off the train. Did we have everyone? By some miracle, yes. We ran around to the other side of the tracks and got on a train going the right direction, arriving late for our reserved time slot. Luckily, Italians never really expect you to be on time, so the only damage was to my ego.

I did actually damage myself a few years back. Also in Rome. I was headed to San Clemente church, a marvelous sight that shows the layers of the city. Leading the group down the ramp to the entrance, I didn’t quite compute that the pine needles on the ramp, mixed with rain, mixed with Tom’s shoes’ crappy soles, made the most slick walking conditions you could create. I went down like a pratfall you see in the movies, comically tumbling and landing on my left leg with all of my weight. And like in the movies, the adrenaline and distilled humiliation I felt made me jump right back up without assessing the damage. I’m alright, I’m alright!

I hobbled down the steps with my local guide and asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking the group to the church without me while I went in search of ice. Once the group was out of sight, I assessed the damage. It was bad, but not broken. I knew it would become a hematoma, as my tour guiding skills also include amateur physician skills. I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk the rest of the day and I felt so dumb for all of it. So embarrassed to do that in front of my group.

And then something happened in the church. Another group stopped and gathered around someone, gasping and calling for help. Someone had suffered a heart attack. The church custodians rushed over and called the ambulance service, which arrived with sirens and lights ablaze. I sat on a pew lamenting my leg and watching the drama, the crew of medics swarming the church, not thinking about my group. They returned to the church just in time to see the hubbub, and every single one of them freaked out, thinking the person on the stretcher was me. Oh, great, the tour guide is dead. I noticed them and waved them over. My local guide was pale as a white sheet. While they were relieved when I got their attention, I think I was not the only person traumatized that day.

Sometimes, It’s Just Not Your Day

The queen of all days-gone-wrong was my day I had a misadventure in Tuscany. But car rentals are a deep well of embarrassing anecdotes.

Most recently, I was working on the Rick Steves Sicily book, navigating around parts of the island I didn’t know. I followed Google Maps to my hotel. Yeah, you know where this is going. The app lead me off the road and down to a city park. It told me to drive through the park and down a trail. That didn’t seem right, but the map offered no other solutions. The trail grew muddier, narrower, and more suspicious. Long canes of pampas grass rubbed alarmingly against either side of the car, so I stopped and got out. From there, I could actually see my hotel. It was on a hill perched above the park and there was no way this road was going there. So I had no choice. I had to drive in reverse to get out. The grass on either side of the car groaned and screeched as I carefully drove the narrow, curvy trail backwards. Sure enough, when I got out and look, a lovely long scratch ran the entire length of my dark green Fiat 500. Shitshitshit!

Rattled and upset about the car, I did finally get to my hotel. I set my phone and purse on top of the car, emptied the back and shut the hatch…hearing a sickening crunch as it slammed shut. That can’t be good. Had I damaged the car some other way? I inspected the door and my heart stopped when I found the culprit. It was my iPhone, smashed at the hinge between the hatch door and the car. It had slid down while I was unloading. Not only was the phone cracked, it had chipped the sunroof of the car. There are not enough expletives.

My phone is my office, I really can’t function properly without it. As it was, I couldn’t leave it in a shop to be fixed in Sicily, so I had to buy a new one, a $500 blunder. The finding of the phone shop and the day that went with it are another embarrassing tale for a different day. (Side note- I did have that phone fixed when I got home and a week later it fell out of my pocket while I was mowing the lawn…and I shredded it for good)

The day I had to return the car I felt like a cat with its tail between its legs. I was so worried and embarrassed, I’d never damaged a car before. I got to the Palermo airport and dutifully fessed up to my crimes. The attendant looked the car over and shrugged. You see, I’d bought the super extra insurance package. He joked that I could have crashed it if I’d wanted to. Thank goodness for being an overly cautious traveler, and thank goodness for the graciousness of Sicilians.

These are but a few of my embarrassing tales. I could go on. I hope they make you feel a little bit better about blunders you’ve made.

Want to join me in the confessional? Share your tales of woe and travel embarrassment here or on my Facebook page and I’ll compile them into an article of commiseration.

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

17 replies on “Face Meet Palm, Embarrassing Moments in Travel”

  1. This is a shortened version of the email I sent to you in response to your article last month! Thank you for sharing! It is encouraging to read about those things, because yes, we do all have those moments!

    For now, I want to tell you about something that should instead make you feel proud of yourself! Your video about packing light made a night and day difference in my experience of traveling to Turkey this past December, compared to my past travels to foreign countries in the 90s (in my 20s), with a huge suitcase! I had already planned to take a small rolling suitcase, but after watching your video, I realized a backpack and a day bag were the way to go!

    Thanks to all your advice, I was able to pack a bag that weighed less than 8 kg, and that was with my flute strapped to the bottom of it!

    It was so freeing to have whatever I needed with me and never to have to check baggage at any point on our trip, which involved domestic flights within Turkey as well as the big flight to Istanbul from the States. At one point, construction prevented our bus from parking anywhere close to the hotel (in Selcuk). So our group walked to the hotel, being good sports about wheeling the luggage over the sand-covered stones in the street. But of course, I merrily trotted along with my backpack and daybag, hands free!

    Over and over again on this wonderful trip, people on my team or those we stayed with commented on how amazing it was that I was able to pack so light, and I kept giving the credit to you and your videos! 🙂 Thank you very much for sharing your expertise with the world!

  2. The plan was to leave a party early, take the tramvaj to our hotel. The Czech guide and our guide had two different ideas on which tramvaj to take. It also involved a transfer and making certain that we “crossed the tracks.” Two groups of us heard the instructions in the same fashion and it turned out that the instructions that we heard took us not to our hotel in Prague, but to the end of the line, out “in the sticks”. There was no ticket booth at the end of the line. We needed exact change to get a ticket from the machine (no change machine). We telephoned our guide who thought this was the funniest thing that she had ever heard. She instructed us to take a taxi back. Umm, there was no taxi stand. Luckily, an English-speaking Czech who was going to take the tram into the city took pity on our group. She telephoned for 2 taxis, but she didn’t count correctly. We needed 3 taxis to take us back. It was an adventure and we were, and still are, a topic of conversation. Oh, yes, the “other” set of instructions which other people followed definitely worked correctly.

  3. Thanks for this great confessional. Living in Bologna in the spring and fall and like you am rubbish at foreign languages, I have entertained many an Italian with my mistakes. One that stands out is at a local market which I frequent to buy my weekly rotisserie chicken, pollo allo spiedo. One day I was daydreaming in English while waiting to order and when it was my turn I blurted out that I would like un pollo alla spina – well alla spina is what you call a beer on tap. The old man at the counter thought this was the funniest thing and started laughing at loud and calling to the other staff that I wanted my chicken on tap and soon all were joining in laughing at my mistake, good naturedly thankfully. All I could do was laugh as well and do some head slapping. I muttered to myself all the way back to the apartment about how stupid I am but was glad I could give others something to cheer up their work day. And I do have to say most Italians are very forgiving and appreciate that you try to speak their language- brava!

  4. Accompanied friend to Warsaw. We landed in Paris for 3 day stay before heading on to Warsaw. My globe trotting friend lost her passport on arrival. We spent afternoon in police station. Me sitting with folks arrested awaiting transfer to jail. Had no idea until a kind police woman said if I didn’t want to go to jail, I had to move. Friend went to embassy next day to replace passport. She came back to hotel, took bath, slipped in tub and cracked three ribs. Then burned skin over said ribs with heat pack slept in overnight. Oh, and the highly recommended hotel had fleas. My poor friend apologized the whole rest of trip. But to my mind, it was a great situation comedy, and I was just the straight man.

  5. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing about embarrassing travel moments. I thought I was the only one! Love your statement that doing something stupid is just part of travel. So I will rest easier knowing I can goof up when I travel just like the experts.

  6. Oh Sarah! This was so much fun to read. It’s really nice to know even the pros like you occasionally make a mistake and become red-faced. You handled each and every one with grace and aplomb so congratulations! Thank you for the morning “boost” in my personal travel confidence meter!

  7. Great stories! The one about the rental car damage really resonated with me. When I was about 24 I broke up with a years-long live-in boyfriend & decided to recuperate in Europe with friends and host-families where I had studied earlier in the Belgium & The Netherlands. But I was still poor with student debt having only just started my career & knew I had to learn to drive a stick-shift in order to get the best rental rates abroad. So I took my ex’s stick-shift car for the 2 weeks before I moved out and taught myself how to drive it. Once in Europe, driving around in my little rental was exciting! My host-mom even complimented me on how well I drove! Until one day I misjudged & tore the side view mirror off while going down a street. I used my fair Dutch skills & fessed up to the rental company who kindly gave me another car & a bill. C’est la vie! I still look back on that whole adventure fondly as the beginning of me finding myself & my independence.

  8. On our second trip to Italy in 2011, filled with confidence and my smattering of Italian, we arrived in Napoli enroute to Sorrento. Having read that one must be certain to find the right track for the Sorrento-bound train, I conferred with a local, “Si,” we were on the right platform. We hopped on the next train. The trip seemed to take a very long time and we were clearly the only non-Italians. I finally deduced from the unfamiliar station names that soemthing was amiss and consulting the on-board map of the line, we were headed to the OTHER SIDE of Mt. Vesuvius! We Circumvesuviana-ed the wrong way! Getting off at the next station, I present the problem to the station agent using my pidgeon Italian who slapped his forehead and exclaimed “Mamma Mia!” He helped me get the right tickets and printed out where we could change trains to avoid going all the way back to Sorrento. That trip took 2-and-a-half hours! Instead of arriving in daylight about 1600 in December, we arrived about 1800. But the Christmas lights greeted us cheerily!

  9. We were in Florence for a 35th reunion of our year-long school adventure and one of my classmates was trying to show off. He took us to his son’s favorite gelateria, claiming it to be the best in town. He proceeded to clearly order a scoop of pesce and the lovely server pointed out that “that would be fish, sir” much to the delight of those of us waiting behind him in line. Laugh every time we think of it.

  10. These are great! I have to admit I laughed a bit at “Oh, great, the tour guide is dead.” I had a similar slip in Toms on a slick wooden dock. Thanks to years of dance, it turned into an embarrassing but graceful split. My most embarrassing travel moment was losing my credit card in Italy on a tour in high school. A small group of us had decided against taking an all-day excursion to Florence and see some more sites in Rome that weren’t on our itinerary. It is still to this day one of my favorite travel days, but also super embarrassing. I remember we went to the Caracalla baths first. I think the tour bus dropped us off or we somehow negotiated something with the hotel, but leaving the baths we had to take a bus to the city center. I spoke the most Italian, so I had to help everyone buy bus tickets at the nearest tabbachi. It wasn’t until we went to buy metro tickets later that day when I realized my credit card was missing. Yikes! In hindsight, I probably left it on the counter at the tabbachi, but aside from a small amount of cash on-hand I had no other money with me for expenses. This was in the era before smart phones, so that night at the hotel I had to call my mom on the teacher’s calling card in the hotel lobby to have her report the credit card stolen. We then had to figure out the logistics of shipping a new card to another country while the tour was moving around. She ended up sending it to our hotel in Athens and I had to borrow money from a friend on the trip for several days in-between. Now I always travel with a back-up credit card and double-check to make sure I have them both with me after leaving any store!

  11. This wasn’t me, but on the last night of our RS Sicily trip last year, our guide led us to our farewell dinner. Or so we thought. He was talking with tour members, forgetting where he was going, and took us in totally the opposite direction. He finally discovered his mistake and got us to our correct destination. We were all a bit footsore and tired, but the dinner was great!
    I commiserate, as my innate sense of direction is terrible. I also am stubborn. Once in Switzerland, we were returning by train from Interlaken back to Bern. I insisted this was the right stop, only to find I was way off. Fortunately, it was still dusk and we could navigate where we needed to walk by where the Jungfrau et al were located. The silver lining was the view of the mountains in that light was stellar. We got our exercise in that day!
    Like you, I am not very apt with languages, including our own. I was on business in Brooklyn and went out for lunch with the local business people. I ordered the salmon. The waiter thought I said “I’ll have the same”and brought me a plate of liver (which the person before me had ordred). I detest liver. So, I delayed lunch while they prepared salmon for me. Just about anything else I would have tried to eat.

  12. Sarah, I like you confessions. My first time in Florence i asked for fish flavored ice cream when I meant peach ice cream. It must be a common mistake. I got my peach ice cream.

    Not to be mean, but were your Tom’s shoes’ soles crappy as you said, or crepey? Yes, language is hard.

  13. Probably our worst situation was last summer when we had been invited to a wedding in Florence of an American Friend and her Italian fiancé. We somehow assumed the wedding was for the 18th, because it was a Saturday and people get married on Saturdays, right? Wrong. After we had made our reservations to fly over on the 15th and booked our apartment, we discovered the wedding was actually on Monday the 13th. Changing airline reservations outgoing is about as expensive as totally rebooking. That was a very expensive mistake, but we survived and had a great time with three extra days to explore Florence. We will check dates like a hawk from now on.

  14. Love your stories – we have many as well, but one of my favorites is when our Garmin told us to drive down the RR tracks to get to the IKEA in Brussels, which we could easily see but couldn’t figure out how in the world to get to. So, from then on, every time we went to IKEA, guess which route my dear husband insisted on taking. The one prescribed by Garmin! Yep, straight down the RR tracks for several blocks to the small side street that got us to IKEA. After all, if the GPS says to do it, it must be ok. HA!

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