Lost in Translation: Menus and Restaurants

I see these restaurants in France all the time:

326 Only in France

Because all Asian food is pretty much the same, right? And no, this is not some trendy fusion restaurant. Out of curiousity, I tried one once. It was a bland, fast food type of cuisine that amounted to soggy vegetables and meat bathed in either soy or teriyaki sauce. Nothing like the widely varied and often spicy dishes that could be offered from any of these countries. For a country so renowned for its food, France has a lot to learn about the cuisine offered outside its own borders!

Poorly translated menu items are part of the charm of traveling abroad. We had some classics in China; I lost track of how many times we said, “What the what!?” Here are a few gems:

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Then there was the beachside restaurant in a small Cote d’Azur village where I’m pretty sure they weren’t really serving “wolf” and where I decided to avoid the “crusty of salmon” altogether.

Here, in the U.S., we find plenty of mistakes. There’s the most obvious: the use of the word “entrée.” It means the first course, entering the meal if you will. But in the U.S. we almost always use it for the list of main dishes. Then there’s a restaurant near us called “La Café.” Decent food, but my husband gets a nervous tick every time we pass it because “café” is masculine, so it should be “Le Café.” Gender mistakes don’t bother Americans much because we don’t use them. But imagine the irritation that those of us grammar lovers experience when someone uses a double negative: “I don’t have no bread,” and you can see how my husband must feel.

At a nice, upscale San Diego restaurant my husband ordered the bouillabaisse. He used the French pronunciation, boo-ya-bais, or for the phonetically inclined: [bujabes]. The waitress asked him to repeat himself several times, then exclaimed:

“Oh! You mean the bool-a-bass-ey!”

Yes. That’s it exactly.

It can be a challenge, trying to order a croissant or any other French food here. My tongue wants to use the French pronunciation, but then I get looked at either in confusion, or I get a big eye roll because clearly, I’m being pretentious. Using the American pronunciation ensures that I will be understood, but it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

I’d love other examples people have experienced with menu items that got lost in translation. Bring them on!

My French Hubby Meets My Cowboy Cousins

The old and the new at the ranch

The old and the new at the ranch

I come from cowboy stock. The real deal. Cattle ranchers, living in a beautiful bit of wilderness at the Arizona-New Mexico border. The ranch has been in my family since 1891. My grandmother was raised there; her mother rode a horse the 27 miles out of the canyon to get to a hospital for my grandmother’s birth, her first of five children. (They opted for home births after that trip!) To get to the ranch now, we ease our 4 wheel drive down the gravel switchbacks, cross the river a couple times if it’s low enough and if not, ditch the car and call my family to come get us in the tractor.

Today, my dad’s cousin runs the ranch. In his soft-spoken drawl, he tells us the ranch belongs to all of us, it’s just his watch. Though I’ve never lived there, there’s a part of me that is connected forever to WY Bar ranch on the Blue.

It took far too long to take my husband on the long trip to the Blue (the town – which consists of not much more than a one room schoolhouse – is Blue, named for the river/creek that runs through it, but we’ve always said, “the Blue” or “on the Blue”). Coming from Paris, he was fascinated at the thought of meeting real cowboys and seeing an honest-to-goodness cattle ranch. When we finally made the trek, he stared out the window in silence, murmuring from time to time, “Wow. This is beautiful.”

We sat up late into the night talking with my aunt and uncle (really my “uncle” is my dad’s cousin and my first cousin once removed, but we call him “Uncle”), eating meat and potatoes and drinking stiff Hot Toddys. The state cattle inspector came by to check on how things were going, make sure no cattle had been lost to wild animals or accidents, make sure all was well. He sat down to chat with us.

After three words from my husband’s mouth, his face contorted and he leaned forward, staring at my husband.

“Where you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“Huh?” He turned to me, perplexed. He couldn’t understand my husband’s accent, which isn’t really all that thick.

“Paris. France,” I said.

“Huh. What’s it like there?”

My husband hesitated, unsure how to answer. “Um, well, Paris is a big, really old city. The country is a lot of rolling hills, rivers, there’s lots of little villages, nothing like this here – ”

“You got cows there?”

“Yes. There are cows.”

The inspector nodded and seemed satisfied.

257 Bro's pics of Jim's memorialOne night we gathered around a campfire, listening to my cousins and their friends tell stories of their different cowboy adventures, drinking beer. It was 17 degrees out, so we pressed as close as we could to the fire. When we all turned to warm our freezing backs, one of the friends drawled:

“We’re all warmin’ our buns, but Stéphane there, he’s warmin’ his croy-sants.”

My husband said he felt like he’d stepped into a movie, into a world and lives he hadn’t known existed.

My uncle listens to my cousins and me tell tales of wandering the planet, of our adventures exploring various European cities, living abroad, trekking through South America, and he smiles and shakes his head, then says in his soft drawl, “It’s just so neat how y’all get out and see the world. Between y’all, you’ve been just ‘bout everywhere. Me, I just about never been on an airplane. I don’t much like being away from home.” It’s so different from the life I know, and I love him all the more for it. I know a little bit about a lot of different places and I pat myself on the back and feel so worldly. My uncle will laugh and call himself a hick, but to me, he’s classic America. He’s got his home on the range, he works hard from dawn to dusk and then some, he knows every craggy cliff, every stone, every stretch and bend of the Blue River. He loves his life, his home, his country. There’s poetry to that.

I envy him sometimes, to which I’m sure he’d scoff. I forever battle between searching out adventures, jumping into all the unknowns I can find, versus the desire to find a place I can set down some roots and truly feel I belong; to find that which eludes me: the feeling of yes, I am home. My cowboy cousins, they know where they want to be. They have generations of history behind them, rooted to Blue, AZ. They are Home, and they live it, breathe it, love it.

My wanderlust must come from my grandmother, the same one who was raised on the ranch. gmagpacalShe and my grandfather lived all over the world: Chile, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Kuwait, Denmark…. Her home was decorated with Persian rugs, African Tribal masks, blue and white Danish dishes. She introduced me to eating croissants for breakfast. She would have loved to meet my husband. I wish I could talk to her now – about her adventures both growing up on an isolated ranch and then as the worldly woman who smiled so broadly in those photos taken around the globe. From cowgirl to world traveler. What an adventure.

I look forward to taking my kids to the ranch and letting them wade in the river, run through the forest, meet my dear family. It’s as much a part of their heritage as is France.

Overlooking the ranch

Overlooking the ranch

Texans in Tahiti

085 Toatea lookout

I’ve been longing for French Polynesia. Palm trees, exotic fish, gentle breezes and sailing a catamaran while my fingertips trail in the clear blue seas…. We spent our honeymoon there, enjoying the warm waters and savoring the food and culture that was such a beautiful mix of Polynesian and French. One of many images stuck in my head: a local, decorated with tattoos and jagged scars (many locals sported these: rough encounters with the coral reefs and, sometimes, sharks), riding a scooter down a muddy back road with a half dozen baguettes jutting out from a sling on his back. Our vacation there was every bit as idyllic as every cliché about Tahiti professes it will be.

Tahitian bottle opener. Check out the scars on his arm!

Tahitian bottle opener. Check out the scars on his arm!

Except for the Texans.

I’ve been to Texas a few times and I’ve found the locals gregarious and welcoming. But for some reason, we kept running into the worst of their lot on our trip. It started with a group on a snorkeling trip in Moorea: two couples, both from Texas, were loudly comparing the cost of their tickets, and their hotel rooms, and how much they’d paid for their excursions, and then how much their homes cost in Texas. Meanwhile, the guide asked for a show of hands for who spoke French and who spoke English. The group was evenly divided, so he said he would explain everything first in French, then in English. As he began his first French explanation, the Texans broke from their money talk to stare at him, then one of them shouted: “ENGLISH! We speak ENGLISH!”

Later, on Bora Bora, our resort was hosting a large group from Texas and while we and every other honeymooning couple on the planet tried to enjoy our romantic tiki torch-lit dinners on the sand, the table of 15 from Texas shouted and guffawed and threw bread from one end of the table to the other, prompting the staff to ask them more than once to calm down.

the Blue Pineapple on Moorea, where we first tasted poisson cru

the Blue Pineapple on Moorea, where we first tasted poisson cru

Then this: We fell in love with poisson cru while we were there; it’s the local traditional dish and so simple yet delicious that I’ve made it several times since. I’m salivating just thinking about it. Our resort offered a class on how to make the dish, so my husband and I joined a few others, including a Texan couple, complete with teased hair and twangs, to learn of the long held tradition of poisson cru.

Conquering the coconut

Conquering the coconut

 

 

Our instructors were all locals. We began with the diced raw ahi, to which we added squeezes of lime juice, then onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Next, we cracked open a coconut (way harder than it looks) and squeezed milk from the meat of it over the dish. And voila! It’s that simple.

As we all savored a plate full of the dish, the woman from Texas smacked her lips together and proclaimed: “I bet this would be real tasty with a bit of May – o – naise!”

Poisson Cru

Poisson Cru

My husband tried not to choke laughing, and I, not always great at holding back, said, “Blasphemy!”

 

 

 

 

 

And now, more photos from our trip, lest you fear we greatly suffered:115 Sunset from deck

Bora Bora

227 what a life!

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

I’m hosting Christmas this year. For the first time ever. In my adult life, I’ve never spent Christmas in my own home. I’ve always either travelled to my parents’ home or to France. My husband and I imagined together the kind of Christmas we would have when the time came to host. We dreamed up menus and activities and of pajama-covered feet running to the tree to see what Santa left. I imagined steaming cups of hot chocolate on my own couch and snuggling in for a long winter’s nap in my own bed. This year, it’s time to stay home, to give our children the experience of Christmas in their, in our, house. My daughter has been talking about Santa (Père Noël) and looking up the chimney, wondering aloud how he will get her choo choo train to her.

Yet it is not without trepidation that I bring my ideas to life. My parents and brother will come here for this holiday; my in-laws will stay in France. I love to cook and entertain, and though I’m not one to shy away from a challenging recipe or unusual ingredients, I’m trying to keep it tame and not change the family traditions too much. After all, my definition of “normal” food is broader than much of my family’s. I figure I should ease them into new traditions rather than banging them over the head with them.

Living in Southern California, much of our dream menu is seafood. When I told my parents that rather than our typical Mexican tamale dinner for Christmas Eve, I wanted to do foie gras (contraband!) and Oysters Rockefeller for an appetizer followed by fish for a main course, I was met with an awkward silence followed by a “Hmm… interesting.” What I didn’t tell them was that I’d already tempered my initial thoughts of scallops and mussels over orzo.

I fear my mom will see the way I’m changing so many things and take it as a slap to the Christmases she’s hosted. But it’s not that at all. I have always loved Christmas at my parents’ home. Which is in part why it took so long for me to host one. On Christmas Eve, friends and family gather; we’ve had as many as forty loved ones all together, filling the house with laughter. I love the huge Mexican food feast we have. Truth be told, I’m sad to miss seeing those people this year and indulging in the chimichangas, queso dip, and generously spiked margaritas that my brother and I make. (Though the latter tradition stopped the year my octogenarian grandmother giggled and staggered through the kitchen while my grandfather commented, “Why, dear, I do believe you’re drunk!” Last thing we needed was Grandma in the hospital with a broken hip.) I’ll even miss that Christmas dinner potato casserole that is so delicious yet sits in my stomach for days afterward like a lead ball, blocking my colon.

Now we have our own kids and our own traditions to start. It’s a bittersweet transition. I hope to create, for my family, the kind of magic my parents created for us growing up. I hope to someday have 30, 40 loved ones gathering in my home on Christmas Eve to make merry. And I hope that one day my parents will be willing to try those scallops. Because Mom, Dad, they are fabulous.