In 2019, Elise and I went on a vacation in Greece. We flew into Athens, rented a car, and drove ourselves around the mainland for a couple of weeks in a grand, open-ended driving tour. Greece is the perfect place for this sort of vacation. Everything you see there is far older than anything you’ve ever seen on this continent and it is all stunningly beautiful. The Aegean sea really is that mind-bending blue color. Modern lodging and delicious food are inexpensive and the people are universally friendly.
One pleasant bonus is that, being a modern EU country and totally dependent on tourism, almost everyone speaks very good English – especially city-dwellers and Greeks under about 50 years old. So when you inevitably get out of your league in a foreign place, you can ask for help. Whenever I would ask someone, “Do you speak English?” They would usually tilt their head to the side with curious exasperation and respond, “Of course.”
One morning, Elise saw something and excitedly jumped out of the car, closing her hand in the door. She really smashed her thumb badly and it got worse and worse as the day wore on. It throbbed with her pulse and she was driven to distraction so we started looking for someplace to buy some over-the-counter pain medicine.
The problem was, we were driving on the National Road, Greece’s version of an interstate highway. Running through extremely rural areas and being strictly controlled-access toll roads, there were no gas stations or quick stops anywhere. When we finally found a place to get off the toll road, we found a gas station that looked like it might have some sort of OTC pain meds for sale.
I asked the attendant, “Do you speak English?” He tilted his head to the side curiously, and said nothing. He apparently did not even know enough English to understand the question. I resorted to the universal next trick in international communication – I tried asking the same question louder, “You know, English? American?” He just shrugged.
I changed my communication strategy. I pointed to the shelves in the gas station and said, “Tylenol? Ibuprofen?” Nothing but crickets for a response. I pointed at Elise and mimed a crushing headache with clawed hands raised to my temples, tears running down my face, and a terrible, sad grimace while begging loudly for, “TY-LE-NOL? TY-LE-NOL”
The attendant came over and pointed to a package and clawed at his temple with a grimace to indicate this was the headache medicine. The package said something approximately like, “παρακεταμόλη.” and I picked out the letters like a kindergartner, “P…A…R…A…”
“Ah! Yes,” he exclaimed, confirming he did know some English. He pointed to a shelf and nodded affirmatively. I thanked him and went to the shelf but there was no Tylenol. There were some pills in blister packs but nothing that seemed like it might read (in Greek letters) acetaminophen or ibuprofen or even aspirin.
Suddenly a light came on in my head. I had a vague memory from years before of a European exchange student asking me for Paracetamol for a headache. I seem to recall the roles having been reversed with the exchange student reduced to miming and grimacing at me to try to get me to understand English, “PAR-A-CET-A-MOL, PAR-A-CET-A-MOL.”
I bought the packet of παρακεταμόλη, and when I got back to the car I was able to tell Elise with an experienced tone of vast international medical knowledge that, ”Paracetamol is the EU name for Tylenol.”