Yet Another Language Moment

OK, i’m moving on from writing about my damn leg because it struck me that if there is anything more boring than sitting around watching your bones knit, it’s reading about somebody else’s bones knitting. So let’s have another Language Moment, this one from my sordid career as a minor partner in a limousine company in San Francisco 1980-1984. I listed myself with the company as a speaker of French, German, and Spanish even though i was far from fluent in any of them. Nevertheless, i was good enough to give tours in those languages, which was almost the only reason any client wanted a bilingual driver.

One exception was two northern Italian couples who got through customs successfully at SFO and then discovered that the alpha male, who had fancied himself their English speaker, was unable to understand anything anyone said to him, nor could they understand him. So i happened to be standing within earshot when he was thrashing around helplessly with the airport porter who had this great pile of their luggage on his cart. I tried French, and suddenly four light bulbs burst into great radiance and they all started talking at once. They were wealthy northern Italians, indifferent students, and chose to study French since it was so vastly much easier than English. But it was a second language for all of us, so we could cut each other plenty of slack.

They were so relieved at being able to communicate with someone that they hired me as their guide for their entire four day stay. They were fun-loving, delightful people, and we all had a good time. And of course i made oodles of money since they were so traumatized by their airport encounter that wanted me around all their waking hours.

The only downer (and it was just for me) was owing to one of those little cultural quirks that sometimes get in your way. They wanted a fine Chinese dinner, so i recommended the Mandarin, opened by Cecilia Chang in 1968, still at its peak in 1982, widely acclaimed as the best Chinese restaurant in the city, and universally rated as the most expensive. Still, my clients had plenty of money, so what could go wrong?

Well, when we were seated and i was describing the menu to them and recommending dishes that we order, a tiny little warning bell went off. After a couple of them had said something to the effect, “I’ll order that one.” i realized that they were thinking of ordering individual dishes, so i carefully explained that at Chinese restaurants, you ordered bowls of a variety of foods so that everyone got to taste everything and then have larger amounts of his favorites. Aghast looks were exchanged. Polite demurrals were issued. And then one of them explained that they didn’t eat “that way”. And i realized that in their culture family style dining was something that one saw only in movies showing Sicilian peasants eating supper together, still smeared with dirt from the fields.

They were relatively young, happy people, eager to see new things and experience America. But there were some things too barbarous to contemplate. So we ordered separately. And at some point the headwaiter drifted over and saw what was going on and tried to explain that they were supposed to share. And i manfully translated. And pointed out that the other well dressed patrons were sharing their food. And still, they could not bring themselves to violate this cultural taboo.

You owe it to yourself. The next time you’re in Europe, cast aside your silly American culinary taboos and eat a delicious horse cutlet.

summer saladMeanwhile, a treat i made for myself the other day.

What’s that green stuff? OK, just some salsa i made of tomatillos, Jalapeños, and scallions. The white stuff is Laura Chenel’s acclaimed chèvre. The red stuff is Brandywine tomatoes, people. It’s a good combination, just taste it. C’mon, just a little taste.

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