Tuesday, May 08, 2007

United Nations Weekend: Spanish/Austrian/British/French/English?

We had an international weekend starting with Spanish Dinner on Friday night. As always, we were in a noisy restaurant, which made it very difficult for me to hear Spanish Husband who is a bit of a quiet talker anyhow. Once when I said, "Huh?" he said "I thought we were speaking Spanish tonight." We WERE speaking Spanish when we could hear it! I did much better when Spanish Wife and I retired to the bar to smoke and drink coffee and discuss the ongoing battle with our recalcitrant facial hair. I was more relaxed and had vocabulary at hand to comment on things like my "bigote y barba.”

Saturday I went provisioning in Austria with my English friends. We went first to get fresh asparagus at an asparagus farm that I thought was not so far away, but when we got off the highway we wandered through village after village until I was not even sure where we were anymore. I was surreptitiously checking my little purse-sized map book, but it only has a tiny bit of Burgenland, Austria on it and we were off that part. I was starting to see signs for Hungary. Finally we drove into a village that had streets lined with buckeye trees (horse chestnuts to the Europeans), but in this village half of the trees had pink blooms instead of white ones. In fact, on the main street, one side of the street was lined with buckeye trees with white flowers and the other side was lined with buckeye trees with pink flowers. I've never seen anything like it. it was really lovely.

We parked in a little square next to the typical town clock tower with the typical stork nest on top (complete with the typical stork). And then we bought asparagus. Most of these little Austrian village houses come right up to the sidewalk with no front garden, and you can't see anything in or behind them because the houses all connect with one another. But when they open the big, wooden doors, then you walk into a courtyard, usually, or even a farm yard sometimes. This place had a lovely, long garden with a fish pond and blooming things, and at the end of the house was the asparagus showroom (complete with a cooler case exhibiting the various grades of asparagus) and a china cabinet with all sorts of dishes in an asparagus theme: a tea pot, a Hollandaise saucier, serving platters, etc) and asparagus factory, complete with owner's wife, sorting, weighing, and bundling bunches of asparagus. In ten days or so the season will be over, and then they will be selling strawberries.

On the ride back from the asparagus vendor to lunch and then the grocery store, we listened to some hysterical P.G. Wodehouse stories about Blandings castle: one about a pumpkin and one, called "Pig-Hoo-o-o-o-ey" summarized, with thanks to Wikipedia, below:

Lord Emsworth, keen that his fat pig, the Empress of Blandings, should win the 87th annual Shropshire Agricultural Show, is distraught when his pigman, Wellbeloved, is sent to prison for fourteen days for being drunk and disorderly. The pig immediately goes off her feed, and with the vet baffled, Emsworth is in no state to listen to his sister Connie's bleatings about his niece Angela breaking off her engagement from Lord Heacham in favour of the quite unsuitable James Belford, who Emsworth himself always liked, being a friend of the lad's father, a local parson.

Emsworth, still distracted about his pig, is sent to London to have stern words with Belford; dining with him at the Senior Conservative Club, the conversation turns to pigs, and Belford, having spent two years on a Nebraska farm, proceeds to impress Emsworth with his knowledge of American pig-calls. He teaches Emsworth the master call, the "pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey" to which all pigs will respond, and Emsworth heads home happily.

Falling asleep on the train, Emsworth forgets the call, but while talking to Angela on the castle grounds, is reminded of it by the sound of Mrs Twemlow's gramophone. He, Beach and Angela all try the call on the Empress, but to no avail; just when all looks black, Belford arrives, shows them how the call should really sound, and to everyone's delight the Empress tucks heartily into her food. She goes on, of course, to win the contest.

It was a lot funnier than this sounds, of course. You should look it up and read it yourself, even though I have spoiled the ending for you. The plots may be silly and even dated, but the man has a most remarkable writing style: intelligent without being off-putting, charming, and hysterically funny. He makes me proud to be an English speaker and, at the same time, ashamed I don’t celebrate and utilize my native language more fully.

Saturday night was a French dinner at the home of a French client of the Spouse's. We thought it was just going to be the four of us, but it turned out to be a dinner party with another couple (and their children) and another French guy (his family had just gone home to France to attend a funeral). Baboo had a sleepover that night, so we could have brought Skittles as she knew these kids (they are children I especially like).

The Host Family had a funny small dog, of a breed I cannot identify . . . sort of a cross between a Chihuahua and a Spitz, but very cat-like in it's personality. A high point of the evening was when the dog presented to all of us at the table, an unidentifiable piece of lacy lingerie, which the Host Husband briskly removed, explaining, "Oh, yes, he just loves this . . ." I think it was a bra belonging to the teenage daughter, but I'm not sure.

A good portion of the evening conversation was lost on me, as I could understand concepts but not details. For example, there was, after the introduction of the dog (and before he began the lingerie show), a lengthy discussion about what I took to be the story of how they acquired the dog. There was a description of the breeder's place (I think) and the word "chinchilla" and much explanation of how bad things smelled. But I don't know. Sometimes I tuned out because it was too hard to follow, only to tune in again just as Host Wife, a stylish, intelligent woman, was asking me something I about which I had no clue. For dinner, they split up the couples, so the Spouse was across the table, mentally wandering in his own elysian fields and of no help to me. I'm sure she wrote me off as a total idiot.

But she was an excellent cook and a remarkable provisioner. I don't know where she found, for example, the giant tiger prawns that accompanied the starter seafood salad. I also don't know where her husband learned to peel his giant tiger prawn with his knife and fork. I mangled mine with my bare hands, mostly because I was so distracted by his surgical skill. It was incredible.

My biggest mistake of the evening, however, was offering to be the designated driver. I did this forgetting that we were going to the home of a French family and that the wines offered were likely to be diverse and excellent. And they were.

We started with champagne, of course, and I did have a small glass of that because, well, it was French champagne. There were two white wines with dinner (I had a swallow of each and they were crisp, complex, and bone dry . . . stupid, stupid, STUPID me) and the offering of a red with cheese course (of course, there was cheese course!). Alas. I drank lots and lots of water and drooled quietly into my napkin.

I conclude after weekends like this one that I never had any level of expertise in any foreign language and whatever small skills I gained in, say, French or Spanish over the years is inevitably atrophied through lack of proper use and diligent practice. I had to ask about so many details after the Spanish and French encounters, and listening to the Wodehouse stories merely reminded me house inferior my vocabulary and story-telling skills are compared to his. I’m amazed I can make myself understood to anyone.

Just Finished Reading: The Nasty Bits, Anthony Bourdain
Now Reading: Heat, Bill Buford

I was at the gym this morning and Baboo is at Classe Verte with her school. Skittles was trawling the bedroom, bored, while the Spouse worked on the computer (it's VE Day today). She a good reader suddenly, but also enjoys spelling words she doesn't know.

Skittles (reading off the cover of a new book of mine): What's M-E-N-O-P-A-U-S-E spell?
Spouse: Menopause.
Skittles: What's that?
Spouse: When a woman's periods stop.
Skittles: WHAT periods?
Spouse: Menstrual periods.
Skittles: What's a menstrual period?
Spouse: Ask your mother. You wanna play [insert name of on-line computer game here]?
Skittles: I can't ask her!


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