100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 92: Norwegian Chicken? Tastes Just Like Chicken.
By Dave Fox
[This story originally appeared on my blog in August, 2006.]
“We don’t have anymore sandwiches,” the lady behind the counter tells the American tourist. “We only have baguettes.”
The tourist looks baffled.
There’s a linguistic misunderstanding in progress. I step in to clear things up.
“They do have sandwiches,” I tell the tourist, “but they’re on baguettes. They’re out of the other kind of bread.”
Somebody in the sandwich shop, I explain to the American woman, has decided that a “sandwich” must be made on a ciabatta roll in order to be called a “sandwich.” A sandwich on a baguette is called a “baguette.”
“Oh,” the tourist smiles. She looks relieved. I’m momentarily happy to have helped. But then, a common, unpleasant phenomenon kicks in.
“Well what do you think I should get?” she asks.
I have to remind myself that venturing overseas is intimidating for some people. I’ve spent several years living and/or traveling in foreign countries. I sometimes forget that some things come more easily to me than to other travelers. Fair enough. It’s confusing when you don’t speak the language. But for some people, a minor cultural difference triggers complete mental paralysis.
I don’t want to tell this woman what kind of sandwich she should get. Instead, I translate the menu. “They have chicken, shrimp, ham, and roast beef.”
“Well what should I get?”
I have no clue what she should get. It’s her sandwich. If she is violently allergic to shellfish, she should probably not get the shrimp.
“A life,” is what I want to tell her. “You should get a life.” I mean seriously, if the four choices were rhinoceros, sea urchin, whale, or belly button lint, I can understand where this might be an intimidating decision for an American tourist. But shrimp, chicken, ham, or roast beef is hardly a decision of culturally epic proportions.
“You should get whatever sounds good to you,” I smile.
She looks terrified. She looks as if she could cry at any moment. She is a stranger in a strange land and I, the nice man who just translated the menu for her, has now turned against her, proposing that she try a new experiment in autonomy, and choose her own sandwich.
She looks at me as if I am the bastard child of Osama bin Laden for not telling her whether the ham is better or worse than the roast beef.
“I just don’t know,” she says. “What are you having?”
“I’m having the chicken,” I say, really hoping to end our conversation.
“Should I get the chicken?”
“Well… do you like chicken?”
Her face turns a ghosty shade of pale. “I don’t know,” she says. “Is the chicken good?”
“It’s chicken!” I want to yell. “It is just like American chicken, only here in Norway, it says kykkeliki instead of cock-a-doodle-doo! Is it good? That depends who you ask. I think it’s tasty. The chicken would probably disagree.”
“I’ll just have what you’re having,” she says. “Tell the girl to make me what you’re having.”
I do not want to tell “the girl” to make her what I am having. I do not want to do this for two reasons:
1) “The girl” speaks fluent English. This woman does not need me to order for her.
2) I do not want to be responsible if this tourist does not like what I am having. Maybe she will not like the deep fried onions on my sandwich, and whose fault will that be? Maybe jalapenos will make her throat close up, and she will die on the floor of the sandwich shop, and then I will be in big trouble with “the girl” for creating this scene and potential lawsuit.
But it’s a hopeless situation. This woman is not going to leave me alone until I tell her what to do.
“She wants the chicken,” I tell the cashier. Then, I gaze out over the vast array of potential sandwich toppings to choose from, and I run – fast, far away, back to my hotel, before the tourist has a chance to ask me about the lettuce, or the tomatoes, or why they don’t accept American dollars.
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