Lost for words in lingo limbo

Stephen Lacey finds phrase books are the last word in futility.

Fangio, my driver, hammered the Mercedes limo down the narrow road that winds along the Amalfi Coast. In hindsight, hiring a driver in a country where there are only two speeds - fast and Jesus-are-you-f---ing-nuts! - was always going to be a risky proposition.

I discovered two things during that journey. One: it is possible to leave your DNA in a vinyl dashboard; two: Einstein knew bugger all about the speed of light - Fangio plunged through tunnels and out the other side before it had a chance to get dark.

Which brings me to the subject of phrase books and how utterly useless they are in the real world. Mine was full of handy conversation starters such as: "Hmm, that feels good, can you do it again with a little whipped gelato and a staple gun?" But nowhere was there a phrase to tell an insane Italian driver to slow down to Mach five. You can imagine the relief when we finally screeched to a stop at the front of our hotel, a delightful establishment in the cliffside village of Praiano.

The brochure in the compendium boasted that the hotel featured a beautiful rooftop garden, so I decided to catch the lift to have a look. This is the kind of thing you do when you're on holidays. I haven't seen my own garden since 1994 and yet here I was enlisting the help of Mr Otis to look at a stunted lemon tree, a bicycle frame and some broken terracotta pots. The garden had obviously seen better days.

And so had the lift. When I pushed the button to go back down, nothing happened. Five minutes later I discovered the fire escape door, hidden behind a shredded beach umbrella. It was locked. I was left with little option; I would climb down and alert the hotel manager that his compendium needed updating. This was a three-storey hotel and yet when I climbed out on that ledge, a wave of vertigo came over me and I slipped. As I was falling, I managed to grab the trellis of broad-beans on the wall of the adjoining house. I loosened off my sandals, threw them down ahead of me and proceeded to make my way down the trellis barefoot.

Finally, I leapt across into the garden next door and landed on a bed of silverbeet, before picking my way past a grove of citrus trees, two beds of potatoes and back through the front door of the hotel, where I slumped against the bellboy. In broken English the manager explained he kept the lifts locked to discourage burglars.

I still had a dilemma. One of my Tevas had become lodged in the abyss between the hotel and the house next door. So I reverted to my phrase book. But do you think I could find the following phrase: "Excuse me, I've lost my over-priced sandal between your hotel and the house next door, could I borrow a really long stick so I can retrieve it, please?"

Of course I couldn't, which is the whole problem with phrase books ... they never tell you the stuff you really need to know.