I have a singular memory from many years ago: one morning, I left my apartment near Washington Square Park, and headed toward Bleecker Street to get some crusty, freshly baked bread at the …
I have a singular memory from many years ago: one morning, I left my apartment near Washington Square Park, and headed toward Bleecker Street to get some crusty, freshly baked bread at the venerable—though now defunct—neighborhood bread shop, Zito’s. On Sixth Avenue, a woman timidly approached me. She was wearing a fanny pack and clutching the camera strap crossing her chest so tightly that her knuckles were white. “Are you Greenwich Village?” she haltingly asked me. I hesitated a moment. I thought to myself, “What a difficult language English must be to master, between grammar and pronunciation.” There are virtually no rules, or at least, little consistency. Why don’t we pronounce the “r” in iron and why is the “ch” silent in yacht?
“Yes, I am Greenwich Village,” I said to the woman. She seemed relieved and headed off to explore whatever she had come to see.
That encounter reminded me that any foreign language is tricky to grasp.
I thought back to a couple of trips to Europe with my sister Janet, when I was responsible for handling all of our communication. I have a pretty good ear for language, and decent enough pronunciation, but more to the point, Janet didn’t want to make a fool of herself and simply refused to try negotiating the language when we traveled. She did research before our trips and was great at reading maps, so it seemed a fair division of labor.
One morning in Paris, we decided to have the complimentary breakfast at our hotel rather than going to a cafe. While waiting to place our order, we constructed a loose itinerary for the day ahead. We had read in a guidebook about the Jeu de Paume, a museum that looked close to the hotel on the map. When the waitress arrived at our table, I summoned my best junior high school French and asked her where the Jeu de Paume was. After a quizzical look, she replied (in French), “We only have orange juice.” I exchanged glances with Janet (who understands a bit of French, even if she won’t try saying it aloud) and we both turned blank gazes on the waitress. She, too, looked confused. A woman at a nearby table cleared her throat. Janet and I turned to her. “I think you asked her where the apple juice is, and she’s letting you know they haven’t any. They do, however, have orange juice.” Though appearing to be helpful, this woman was clearly stifling a laugh. Apparently, my pronunciation of Jeu de Paume could not be distinguished from jus de pomme. Even now I’m not sure I can hear the difference. “Merci, non,” I responded politely to the waitress.
On another trip—this one to Italy—I again found myself the spokesperson. My Italian phrasebook had all these stuffy, lengthy ways of asking for everything. Instead of just saying, “Where’s the bathroom?” I would have to memorize, “Pardon me, would you please be so kind as to tell me where the bathroom is located?”
It sounded idiotic to me and was clearly too formal, so I decided to shorten phrases as we do in English.
In restaurants, whenever I was unsure of what had been brought to us, instead of asking, “What is the name by which this is called?” I would ask, “What is this?” Or so I thought. After returning home to New York, we discovered that during the entire trip to Italy I had mistakenly been using the word “this” in place of “what.” I had spent two weeks pointing to my plate and asking, “This is it?” instead of “What is this?” Equally embarrassing, this is the same trip in which I would sometimes inquire if a waiter or salesperson spoke a little English. The only problem was that I used the term “un piccolo” instead of “un poco” and was actually asking if they spoke a small English. How very stupida I must have appeared!
On a subsequent trip to Italy, Janet and I had taken two buses, and then walked quite a few blocks on a sopping-wet afternoon, to get to a particular restaurant in Milan that our guidebook highly recommended. For the first time ever, I could not decipher any items on the menu.
Usually, my phrasebook offered various alternative names for anything I wanted to order. Shrimp, for instance, can be referred to in about eight different ways. But there was no help when it came to this menu. There was no translation from the Italian, and I felt utterly lost.
At that time in my life, I ate no veal, pork, beef or lamb, so I simply told the waiter, “No carne,” meaning no meat. Then I waved my hand over the menu in such a way as to indicate that he should choose for us. A while later, he presented us with a plate of food that was as alien to us as the menu. It was, basically, a colorless mound of thin slabs of something or other covered with equally colorless strands of something else.
“You try it,” I suggested to Janet.
“Why me? Why don’t you try it?” she said.
“It may be meat,” I countered. I hadn’t partaken in over 20 years, so I figured she wouldn’t expect me to be the guinea pig in this instance.
Finally, Janet took a forkful. It turned out to be (as far as she could tell, without us pointing to it and asking, “This is it?”), slices of pork or veal covered with sauerkraut. It wasn’t awful, but she never would’ve ordered it, and of course, I couldn’t help her out by eating any of it.
Luckily, while she was pushing it around her plate, the waiter brought over a dish we immediately recognized. It was a couple of grilled triangles of cornmeal polenta, each topped with a fried egg. As the waiter stepped back from the table, the chef, with a huge white toque atop his head, appeared as if from nowhere and ceremoniously waved a huge white truffle in the air. He placed it first under my nose and then Janet’s. We inhaled the musky, earthy scent. With a metal gadget I’d never seen before, the chef began to shave the truffle into paper-thin slices. They fell like confetti onto the fried eggs and golden polenta slices.
He bowed solemnly and headed back to the kitchen, taking the remainder of the precious truffle with him. He should have stayed to see our faces when we tasted this extraordinary dish that was unlike anything we had ever eaten or imagined. It was one of the most unforgettable food experiences of my life. I felt like running after him, straight into his kitchen and embracing him while exclaiming, “Merci, merci, c’est magnifique!” No, wait a minute—that’s French, not Italian—
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