According to my husband, the true test of language proficiency is whether or not you can order a pizza over the phone.
We’ve all been there. Room full of friends, maybe studying together, watching a game, or just hanging out. People get hungry. Someone suggests ordering a pizza. One person shouts out, “Mushrooms!” and another, “Pepperoni!” while a third person says, “I’m a vegetarian. No meat!”
As anyone who has tried to learn a second language can attest, when more than one person speaks at a time, conversation becomes tangled and it can be impossible to comb it out and discern what’s being said.
Then there’s the phone call. It’s hard enough to understand your non-native tongue in person, let alone over the phone. Add to that the fact that the person working at the pizza place is often foreign as well. So, two people are trying to communicate with each other in their non-native language over the phone. For my husband here in southern California, that means a French guy talking to a native Spanish speaker in English. For me in France, I often found myself talking to north Africans whose native tongue was Arabic. Chances are you’re using a cell phone, too, which despite our advances in technology still can’t compete with a landline in terms of quality.
My husband describes it this way:
“The trouble starts when they ask for your phone number. In French, we always say: eighty-five, nineteen, etc. In the U.S., phone numbers are stated one digit at a time. So the person on the other end of the line ends up confused. I’m trying to understand what the pizza guy is saying while everyone in the room is shouting their likes, dislikes, what size pizza, etc. I have to ask the pizza guy to repeat everything three or four times and now he’s annoyed. People keep yelling out ingredients. The pizza guy asks if we want pepperoni. I heard someone say they were vegetarian. But pepperoni, that must be the same as the Italian word: peperoni, which is a type of pepper. That’s not meat, right? So I say, ‘Yes, pepperoni.’”
Miraculously, the pizza arrives. And it’s not the pizza that anyone wanted.
I had a similar experience in Antibes, the south of France. My friends decided that my French was the best among us, so I should order the pizza. We knew of one place that delivered. We’d been there in person before to order and hadn’t had the most… positive experience with the guy there. So, crossing my fingers in hopes that someone other than the guy we’d dealt with would answer the call, I dialed the pizza place. Mr. Personality answered. His Arabic accent was thick and he had a short fuse. I did my best, ordered two pizzas, one “Reine” (olives, mushrooms, and prosciutto) for my friend and I to split, and a second pizza covered in meat for our other friend (she was 8 months pregnant, adorable, and ravenous).
Then we waited. And waited. He finally showed up. With one pizza. It wasn’t either of the pizzas we’d ordered. He also claimed he had no change. We argued with him. This isn’t what we ordered! Why would you come here without any change? He became irate and insistent that the mistakes were ours and not his. My pregnant friend was about to pass out from hunger, so we took the pizza and he took a hefty tip.
We never ordered pizza from his store again. Pity, they made good pizza. Thin, crispy crust, flavorful cheese, fresh toppings…. The south of France has the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, outside of Italy. Even when they get the order wrong.
Ordering food in a foreign language is an adventurous undertaking. Even something that seems as simple as pizza. The day I can confidently order a pizza over the phone in France, I’m popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
Now I’m hungry.