Idiomatic expressions can ease a traveller's journey

A trip to Costa Rica is sure to introduce you to "pura vida". The literal translation is "pure life" but it has become the country's unofficial motto, as well as its tourist board marketing slogan. Pura vida is about keeping calm — "tranquillo" — enjoying the simple things in life.

The phrase is uttered at any convenient opportunity, as a greeting or to signal gratitude. But which phrases best sum up the philosophy of other nations?
We asked our experts for suggestions.

The Netherlands


How's the gezellig? Photo / Getty Images
How's the gezellig? Photo / Getty Images

"Gezelligheid" — the state of being "gezellig" — is a cornerstone of the Dutch way of life. The usual translation of "gezellig" is cosy but that doesn't get a finger on all the subtleties of the concept. Convivial, perhaps, comes closer. "Gezellig" is a candlelit interior, log fire crackling as rain spatters the window panes, but the word carries a deeper meaning: of getting along with others, of not disrupting them. A welcoming atmosphere in a small cafe is "gezellig"; hordes of Brits on a stag party are not. Dutch mothers may urge rowdy children to "keep it gezellig". "Gezelligheid" keeps life cosy in a crowded country.
— Rodney Bolt



A good spot for shinrin yoku. Photo / Getty Images
A good spot for shinrin yoku. Photo / Getty Images

Japan is home to countless words that defy succinct translation, both linguistically and conceptually (a personal favourite is "tsundoku", which refers to someone who has a permanent pile of unread books lying by their bed). But one phrase that perhaps best sums up the Japanese spirit is "ganbatte!" Loosely translated as anything from "do your best!" and "stick with it!" to "be strong!" and "hang in there!", it is a national mantra. It reflects the importance Japan places on doing your absolute best — not for your egotistical self, but for the good of the collective community — be it in the context of the aftermath of a tsunami and earthquake (it was heard and seen everywhere after the 2011 disaster), before an important exam, or simply when carrying heavy shopping bags home. — Danielle Demetriou



Tango or gotan? Photo / Getty Images
Tango or gotan? Photo / Getty Images

Argentines are creative linguists, making daily use of "lunfardo", a century-old prison slang. Syllables are routinely inverted. Thus, cafe becomes "feca" and tango becomes "gotan". Sometimes, meanings are inverted: "barbaro" or "barbarian" is used to mean wonderful or brilliant. They're most inventive when being rude. The unprintable expressions overheard at football matches tend to feature sisters, grandmas and genitalia — and often parakeets, for some reason. Argentines pepper their chatter with psychoanalytical jargon. Very common, and telling, is "histerico". Someone is "histerico" or "histerica" when they're desperate for attention, friends or flirtation.
— Chris Moss

Hong Kong

"Sik jaw fan may ah?"

Shortly after I arrived in Hong Kong and was still grappling with the variant Cantonese tones of hello (lei ho? or nei ho?) and the two ways of saying thank you, I heard the territory's quintessential query: "Sik jaw fan may ah?" (Literally: "Have you eaten rice yet?"). It's a phrase which tells you everything you need to know about what matters most here. It's one of those social questions that doesn't require a detailed answer: you either have or you haven't (yet).
— Fionnuala McHugh


"Mai pen rai"

What's the hurry? Photo / Getty Images
What's the hurry? Photo / Getty Images

If there's one phrase that sums up Thailand, it would be "mai pen rai". It has a number of meanings (a very Thai thing in itself), including no thanks, whatever, you're welcome, everything is okay and don't worry about it. In line with Buddhist thinking, rooted in ideas of impermanence, karma and acceptance, Thais hate any kind of stress or confrontation, so this is a handy phrase for tourists to know — bartering for tuk-tuks driving you mad? "Mai pen rai". Food order mixed up or taking forever? Shrug, smile and say "mai pen rai". — Lee Cobaj



Singaporeans love to get ahead. Photo / Getty Images
Singaporeans love to get ahead. Photo / Getty Images

We Singaporeans are born into "kiasu" culture, which is best described as an anxious desire not to miss an opportunity or be left behind. From about the age 7 or 8, everyone in class had a placement or ranking based on our academic achievements and, of course, no one wants to be last. This obsession about not losing has spawned a ballooning tuition industry. Schools no longer rank students based on academic achievements, but it will take time for the "kiasu" culture to go away. It is perhaps this fear of losing that makes Singapore a driven society.
— Evelyn Chen


"Bella figura"

This is about being well-turned-out in life, not just in the cut of a suit. The need to "fare bella figura", or put on a good show, explains why even Italians who struggle to make ends meet can look like a million dollars sitting at a cafe. Equally, it explains why they'll make a date with you in that cafe rather than invite you back home. It's not just empty facades, however. With enough confidence (an abundant natural resource south of the Alps), an Italian becomes the "bella figura" they project.
— Lee Marshall


"Jusqu'au bout"

French people say "jusqu'au bout" all the time and it means "right to the end, to the very limit; nothing's going to stop us". It's where strikes are always going. (It's particularly ironic when transport unions say they're going "jusqu'au bout" — as they aren't going anywhere at all.) Not just strikes. Also police investigations, neighbour disputes, endurance tests, anything. Whenever a French person undertakes anything at all it is with the intention of carrying it out "jusqu'au bout".
— Anthony Peregrine



Who wouldn't miss this? Photo / Getty Images
Who wouldn't miss this? Photo / Getty Images

The phrase "para os Ingleses ver" or "for the English to see" (as in "just for show") came about in the 1830s when the Royal Navy was enforcing the abolition of slavery — the captains of slave ships coming into Brazil would hide the slaves below deck and display containers of other imports, such as cotton, for the inspectors to see. It is a common, albeit quite old-fashioned, phrase nowadays. Then there is "saudades", which is a word Brazilians are very proud of for not having an equivalent in English. It refers to a deep sense of yearning for a place or person. If a Brazilian is overseas, they will always have "saudades" for Brazil, no matter how much they like where they are.
— Doug Gray