In 1999, my then girlfriend Dalene and I went on a motorcycle trip around Europe for nearly half a year. A few short vacations aside , it was my first real major trip abroad and I was surprisingly nervous about how weird and crazy Europe would be. I carried a small Sony laptop, a Sony Digital Mavica camera (into which you had to insert floppy disks to record the photos), and we documented the entire vacation and updated it via FrontPage nearly every day (you can see the results at http://europe.lanfear.com). Apart from theft of our BMW motorcycles, the thing about which I worried the most was: food.
In this regard, the trip went quite well. Out of over 150 days abroad, eating three square meals a day in restaurants or strangers’ houses, we only had three incidents where the food would be described “not good”. The first was in a smaller city in France called Chatellerault, where we ordered an entrecôte with fries (me) and sausage and potatoes (her). She had eaten a little of the sausage when she suddenly gave me a weird look and said “this thing tastes kinda funny”. So I took a bite, and immediately had a nasty suspicion of what I was eating. I pulled out the dictionary (only paper ones back in the Stone Ages of 1999) and – sure enough – we were eating chopped up intestines stuffed into intestines and fried into a nice intestine sausage. Which explains why it tasted like vomit.
The second experience was in Badajoz, Spain, an entirely awful place. The only reason that anybody seems to come to this city is to stop-over on the way to Portugal — exactly what we were doing. We ended up at a nice seafood restaurant, where I decided to play it safe and ordered fried fish with french fries. The girlfriend was feeling adventurous though, and chose squid. What we had failed to notice on the menu, however, is that they were served in their own black ink. Now, the dish wasn’t inedible, or awful per se; it was just really weird to be eating something solidly black that stained your mouth and teeth every time you took a bite. Wouldn’t recommend it.
The strangest meal, and the ultimate object of this story, however, was about week later, after we had finished visiting Lisbon, Portugal, and were on our way back into Spain. We were in the mountains to the northwest of Sevilla, and found a nice little truck-stop-like roadside restaurant.
Now, previously on the trip, we had stopped at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Spain (otherwise known as Herrera del Duque), and begged the owner to open a bit early and make us lunch as we were famished. We were immediatley served an awesome fish dish (her) and I had something fantastic with tomato sauce, eggs, and sausage. We never learned the dish’s name, but I remember the combination of the eggs and sauce vividly. So, when I sat down in that roadside restaurant in the mountains, opened the menu, and saw some dish called huevos abliñados (huevos being the Spanish word for egg and abliñado being some word that no dictionary seems to have heard of), I had to give it a try. Dalene, wisely, ordered fish and fries.
What came out to me a few minutes later was completely unexpected, and couldn’t have anything less to do with eggs than you could imagine. Indeed, what was placed in front of me would be described as looking like “cold chopped up brains”, with a few pieces of bell peppers, and sprinkled with some olive oil. Being adventurous about it, I took a few bites. It was awful — the taste was simply not good at all. I had completely struck out on the meal, and ended up choking down about a quarter of the dish before resorting to stealing some of the lady’s fries. As for the rest of the weird gray brainy matter, I just did what any smart 5 year old child would do, and bunched it all up into a corner of the bowl to make it look like I had eaten more than I really had, so as not to offend the chef.
And that was the end of that meal. I never really thought about it much after that, even when talking about food on the trip, and it remained a complete mystery as to what I had really eaten.
Jump forward one calendar year to 2000 — new city (San Francisco) and new girlfriend. We were talking about learning Spanish, and she was recounting to me stories of her Spanish mishaps at work, where many of her employees were native Spanish speakers. In one story, she was telling me how she confused the the word for keys ( llaves ) and eggs ( huevos ). She had misplaced her keys and asked one of her colleagues “¿Donde estan mis huevos?”, which immediately caused her entire Spanish-speaking staff to burst into uproarious laughter and roll around on the floor laughing.
“So, it turns out”, she said wrly, “that I had just asked them where my balls were. It’s a euphemism, you see.”
It came crashing down on me like a tonne of bricks. One year after that meal in the southwest corner of Spain, I suddenly knew exactly what I had eaten: bull testicles. Balls. Junk. Gross.
I have eaten a few strange things so far in my life; cobra, kangaroo, sparrow skewers, and sheeps’ eyeballs, but testicles still remain my least favourite.[Read Rest of Article]
In late summer 2008, I found myself in Mumbai living in a Hindu temple and doing about four and a half hours of yoga every day. It was a very solitary existence in the city balanced between yoga, eating, sleeping, and reading. With no Internet in my room (I had a little USB card but it worked extremely poorly), I was by and large cut off from the rest of the world when not in yoga class. Thus it was all the more strange that one week when I met the Spaniard.
I would typically wake up at 6.40am and rush down the stairs to make the 6.45am class start; living in the same building as the classroom had its advantages. After breakfast I would usually shower and nap for an hour to let the local breakfast restaurants clear out a little bit before I myself would venture out to get something to eat. Afternoons, being unbearably hot and thus best spent inside, would be spent reading books, programming, or otherwise snoozing. Three more hours of yoga in the evening, and then a quick dash to get some late dinner and then off to bed. It was a really pleasant and simple life.
After a couple of weeks of this, though, a new student appeared in some of my classes. A lanky, tall guy with a big bushy beard, with legs that just did not want to bend in the way he wanted them to. He struck me as German, or perhaps American, and I had little interaction with him. He would scoot out of class as soon as we were done, and I wouldn’t see him until the next day. But then one day, we bumped into each other in the elevator and struck up a conversation — we were neighbours. He was not from either of my guessed nations, but was indeed Spanish, from Gránada.
His English was as good as my Spanish; which is to say workable, but not great. We would speak in our respective languages, and have slow, painful conversations about motivations for coming to India, what we did, and what we imagined doing in the future. And then we discovered a remarkable thing:
He had lived in Nanjing studying Asian art history for four years. His Mandarin Chinese was really, really good. Much better than his English. Mine was, similarly, better than my Spanish.
And so it came back to pass that this tall hippie-ish looking Spaniard (full disclosure: I didn’t look much better. I didn’t bring a razor and was too lazy to go buy a new one) and a Canadian guy would hang out in restaurants in Matunga, Mumbai, chattering happily away in Mandarin Chinese. The looks from the locals ranged from “oh, that must be english or something” to “what the hell kind of language is that?”
It’s a long way away from being a lingua franca, but for one week in metropolitan India, Chinese helped bridge a cultural gap that might have otherwise gone unfilled.[Read Rest of Article]