Last month I traveled to the Dominican Republic. To my great surprise, I discovered that my dust-covered, moth-eaten, high school Spanish actually enabled me to converse with the locals--albeit at the most rudimentary level. Not surprisingly, my greatest success crossing the linguistic divide centered around dining. Donde esta la mantiquilla? Where is the butter? Necessito una agua, por favor. I need some water, please. Queremos vin blanc. We would like some white wine. To my gringo companions, I was a rock star. I could ask for more beer--mas cerveza; a spoon--una cuchara; hielo--ice. With each passing day, more espanol kicked in, and I became increasingly emboldened. I felt like a United Nations translator--you know, just doing my little part to bring the world a little closer together.
It seemed to me that it was no coincidence that my almost-defunct Spanish would resurrect itself around the dinner table. I convinced myself that some things in this world are universal: a mother's love, a lover's touch, and the absolute communal experience that is food. Food binds us to family, to friends, and now, as I had discovered on some sort of primal level--other cultures. So it was absolutely with no compunction I asked for some potatoes to accompany the all-you-can-eat-meat extravaganza of a Brazilian steakhouse. You've been to these places before. The waiters walk around with spits of meat that they carve off into your plate in a carnivorous orgy: huge skewers of steak, pork, chicken, and lamb. Slice after slice after slice of pure unadulterated meat. But on this particular evening, the guy who was supposed to be carrying around the side dishes of potatoes and vegetables was no where to be found. Not to worry. Hablo espanol. I speak Spanish. Senor, por favor. Sir, please. Quiero unos zapatos con mi carne. I would like some potatoes with my meat. Somehow I failed to register the waiter's look of confusion. Smile big and act confident--'cause you know I've got this Spanish thing nailed. QUIERO UNOS ZAPATOS CON ME CARNE! If you say it louder and more emphatically, you'll be understood. And so I was:
I would like some SHOES with my my meat.
Most kindly, and perhaps because they weren't the most fluent in English, the wait staff didn't ask if those would be manolo blahniks or christian louboutin. Instead they just laughed, and pointed to my feet. And because, in the end, pointing is truly the universal language, I discovered my error and laughed right along with them--knowing full well that this was one of those times in life when people weren't laughing with you, they were laughing AT you.
And damn. I never did get those zapatos; I mean papas.