Part I: Futbol
If there is one sport Coach Rowland likes more than track and field, its futbol. I was first exposed to this enthusiasm a week after he moved to town from South London. An enormous English flag was staked into the planter box of his rental house in Eugene before basic furniture made it through the doors.
“You realize you just took a job in America coaching Americans, right?” I asked.
“There’s a futbol match on tomorrow,” he stated, as if that explained everything.
Since then I’ve learned that if futbol is on TV, you watch your step around Old Rowls. For instance, you don’t talk to him, period. Its just not safe. There is a crazy button on his head that turns on if he hears a woman’s voice asking stupid futbol questions, especially if England is playing.
Lucky for me, I’m a sit-quietly-and-watch type of person. And over time I’ve managed to progress from being kicked out of the room, to being allowed to watch the World Cup Final in the same bar. To me, this represents a more dramatic improvement than my track season.
Last night, the soccer “fans” (loosely including myself) went out to dinner before heading into a bar for the game. We stumbled on a cute restaurant whose menu looked diverse enough for the four of us, and found ourselves sitting at a nicely set table with a view of the Pyrenees.
My adventurous nature, combined with my inability to speak a word of the local language, gets me into trouble when it comes to menus, and today was no exception. I’m not a very picky eater, and in nice restaurants in America this allows me to use my favorite line without consequence, “I’ll have whatever you recommend, sir. Surprise me.”
Leave the confines of the US of A and this is a very dangerous thing to say.
Part II: French Dining
My first trip ever to France was for World Cross in 2004. Determined to be independent, I arrived a few days early to adapt to the time change, several days before the rest of the US team. Armed with a French phrasebook, I managed public transportation and followed local maps to find my hotel, which was no easy task in a maze of crooked alleyways in the dark. Taking a page out of Rick Steves’ book, I combed the back alleys for a local mom and pop restaurant to get an authentic locals’ experience.
Three well-dressed couples sat among 10 well-set tables and, phrasebook in hand, I asked the wife/server to “please sit to me a table of one.” My blank, open-mouthed stare at her first inquiry prompted her to laugh genially and bring me a glass of red wine. What kind was it? I don’t know. Red. Then, in response to her next question (most likely along the lines of “how are you tonight?”) I proceeded to order “Whatever you recommend, sir. The specialty of the house, your welcome.”
She pointed to a menu du jour written in chalk on the wall, with four illegible courses, and I was thrilled to think that I’d experience the best of famous French cuisine. I felt so cultured! “I’ll have whatever you recommend, madam.”
The first course was snails. Yep, I know, should have seen that one coming. And no, they did not taste like chicken. To be fair, they were sort of…lovely, so long as I disconnected my brain from my mouth.
Suddently realizing that menu optimism has consequences in a foreign country, I waited with trepidation for the next course. Luckily for me, it was one of my all-time favorites…a real go-to if you will: brains. What the #$%!? In my wildest dreams, I didn’t see that one coming. With no dog under the table to dispose of the evidence, and interested neighbors watching me, I reluctantly swallowed every bite.
By this point, her husband/chef had been curiously poking his head out of the kitchen window to keep tabs on the developing American spectacle. I imagined him thinking, “Did she eat the brains? Ooh hoo hoo! Magnific! What can I give her next?!”
For the final course, the woman said some words and the inflection in her voice, along with the hand gestures, alerted me to the fact that she might be asking me to choose between two things. The only familiar word I picked out was “fromage,” so that’s what I repeated back to her. Imagining a delicate, famous French pastry with chocolate ganache, my sweet tooth absolutely ached with anticipation.
The rather large chef, obviously impressed with my gustatory performance thusfar, personally wheeled a large cart in my direction…and on said cart were six wheels of cheese, each as large as a small pizza. Not a pastry or cake to be found. Ah…fromage.
He waved his hand over the selections, pointed at me, and put up two fingers. What the hell. Might as well do this right. I pointed at the veiniest, moldiest, stinkiest ones on the tray, and he lobbed off a massive hunk of each and put it on my plate. And then he proceeded to stand there whilst I ate them, smiling good naturedly, with my only responses being mmmms and the occasional mime-like, wide-eyed rubbing of my tummy. After that, I paid my bill and waddled down the street to my hotel room where a food coma took me out within seconds.
French Dining, Take II
Back to French dining present day, I again ordered the Menu du Jour, but this time it said “Catalan” next to it. I don’t even know what that means, except that it has something to do with Spain. Six years later, I’m still asking for trouble with foreign cuisine, but this time I came armed with friends, including Nick Symmonds who knows enough French to read a menu, and Coach Rowland who isn’t afraid to ask English questions to a French waiter, and my husband who has enough sense to dissuade me from saying, “Sure! I’ll try the cheek of pork!” I had a lovely steak instead.
On the wander home from a pretty boring World Cup Final, while Rowland was undoubtably going over futbol plays in his head, I had a laugh thinking about how language affects your choices, and your entire personality for that matter. In America, we wouldn’t have patronized that particular bar, since it looked like it could double as a brothel, but it was the only place with seats available to watch the game so we played the ignorant foreigners and took our seats. And in America, if I want white wine, I’ll spend ten minutes pouring over the wine list to choose the appropriate varietal and vintage to match my meal and mood. But in France, when asked what I want to drink, I’m content to say simply “Vin” (wine). And when asked what kind…Oh geez, I don’t know…white! I mean blanc!”