I looked through all of my old travel books recently, and I noticed one glaring omission from the pocket translation guides at the back. I don’t always buy the same series of guides – I have some Lonely Planet guides, some Frommer’s guides, a Rough Guide or two. At least I know this isn’t just a glaring fault from one publisher. In the quick translations, they all have the same core information – how to order certain common meals, how to ask for an ambulance, how to say in the native language of the country that you don’t speak their language but you speak X, and how to say the most common illnesses or injuries that will land you in a foreign doctor’s office.
But none of them have the translation for, “Oh crap, I’ve got a really bad sunburn, where’s the stinking aloe vera?” As if I’m the only pasty Canadian who burns to a crisp on shady days in May in Italy even if I’m wearing sunscreen. They also all universally lack an explanation that your skin is itchy and you’d love some cortisone cream, and surprisingly all lack an explanation that you’ve got a dodgy traveler’s stomach and you just might be willing to trade your left kidney if someone would let you use their toilet for a few minutes.
Last year I went to the beach in Sardinia on a cloudy day in early May. I applied a ton of sunscreen. I stayed in the shade, such as it was. I covered my skin. I wore a hat. I reapplied my sunscreen. Low and behold, that evening I felt the heat radiating off my skin at an alarming rate. I took a cold shower and emptied my entire 100 ml tube of aloe vera on my shoulders and chest, but the heat continued radiating off my skin. I gingerly got dressed and went looking for the telltale green cross of a pharmacy in Italy.
“Bonjourno! Parlate inglese o francese?” I said to the pharmacist. He shook his head no.
“Aloe vera?” I tried, hoping the the Italian word would be close. He smiled and shook his head. He didn’t understand. I fumbled through my dictionary, but aloe vera was not in there. I pointed at myself.
“Io sono canadese.” I am Canadian. He smiled and nodded. Things were starting to click!
I pointed outside at the setting sun, then pointed at my skin. I mimed going swimming. “Rosso! Aqua!” Red! Swimming! I touched my arm and the skin turned from bright red to snow white. “Ouch!!!!!” The pharmacist promptly burst out laughing and produced a €17 tube of aloe vera labeled valoes with a drawing of an aloe plant on it.
“Si, si, valoes!” I didn’t care that the tiny tube was over $25 CAN. It was sweet relief.
As one could imagine, it wasn’t any easier buying cortisone cream for a heat rash in Saigon. I went to 4 or 5 pharmacies until I found one with a Parisian educated pharmacist who obviously spoke French. I showed my itchy arms to all the other pharmacists, and they pulled out everything from lice cream to Viagra. One offered me morphine.
On the bright side, I’m not going to share photos of my sunburns or heat rashes. Consider yourselves spared.