Paul Bowles, adventurous traveler and novelist, used to say that whenever he traveled he wanted the place and experience to be unlike anything he had ever seen or experienced before. Bowles craved the exotic and even felt slightly amused if he was swindled overseas. He thought it was all part of the exchange of leaving the familiar and venturing into the land of the strange.
Before we travel, I talk to the students about training their eye to notice what is different and what is similar. Here’s a story of what can happen when you travel.
After a long day, our bus rolls into Caen, France and we head for the medieval district for dinner. We look at the menus of the many fantastic restaurants that are nearby. We finally settle on one that has heated, outdoor patio seating and Italian cuisine.
Upon ordering our food, we discover that the waiter doesn’t speak English (or at least to us). So we use improvisational sign language. We tell him we want separate checks for each of us. We then point to what we want on the menu. And then we select our food. I order a pizza with some kind of meat. Or so I think I do.
When my pizza comes, it looks like this:
When I get my pizza with meat on it, there is a yellow, runny thing in the middle. Wondering what it is, I ask our resident French scholar, Olivia Koselansky, “what the heck is this thing in the middle of my pizza?”
“That”, she tells me, “is ouef.”
“But”, I tell her, “I didn’t order ouef.”
“Oh, but you did”, she replies with a bilingual smile.
The yellow thing in the middle of my pizza is an egg. Heck, had I known that the cook was going to feed me a breakfast supper, I would have at least had him scramble the eggs.
I don’t go ugly American on him. I didn’t use the only sign language I really know. And I did feign a smile while eating the running egg pizza.
He brings the check but it is all on one ticket. We use our improvised sign language to ask him to break up the check into separate orders. He doesn’t understand. So we do the math on our own. It gets complicated. We have to remember the French names of our menu items: “Ok, who had the pates avec de la viande et oeuf?”
“I don’t know. What is it?” someone says.
“I don’t know. That’s just what it says.”
After what felt like hours of advanced computational exercises, we figure it out. We explain to our waiter what we’re doing. He doesn’t understand. He motions, “one minute” and goes to get the hostess. She comes to our table. She doesn’t understand. She motions, “one minute” and goes to get the manager. He comes to our table, shakes his head that he understands, “oui, oui”.
The whole experience reminded me of this very funny prank that was on the Jimmie Kennedy Show a few years ago about a woman trying to order food at a cajun restaurant in New Orleans.
In our case, we begin to process payment. My card doesn’t work. I worry that I’ve broken the bank back home. I try a second card. It doesn’t work. He doesn’t speak English but shows me the receipt with a French note that roughly translates to, “you’re up the creek without a paddle”. This process continues for fifteen minutes. None of our cards work on his portable credit card machine. So, he does the upper-level international sign language for “alright, you idiots. There is a bank ATM machine down the street four blocks south and then another two blocks to the left in between Henri’s bakery and Marie’s floral shop. You can get Euros from there and come back and pay in cash.”
And so we do. We got to the Bank in small groups, leaving a few at the table to make a good showing of honesty. We don’t want the French police looking after us, thinking we are doing the “dine and dash”.
By the time we Americans pay the French restaurant owner for our Italian meal, we are late for the bus.
That is the adventure of traveling!