'Matter of Laugh or Death,' a humor column
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
(appearing each week in the Republican-American newspaper, Waterbury, CT)
GETTING LOST IN THE TRANSLATION
For years I’ve had little patience with phone messages that begin, “Press one for English…” For crying out loud, I would think to myself, learn the local language. Then we went on vacation in Austria, where the local language is German. I think I’ll lighten up on those “Press one” phone messages.
The only German words I know were learned while watching “Hogan’s Heroes” as a kid: “Jawohl” (pronounced ya-vole), which means yes sir; “Schnell,” which means hurry up; and “I know nothing, Col. Hogan. Nothingggg!” which means Sgt. Schultz once again does not want to get involved.
When it comes to speaking German, just like Schultz, I know nothing. And what a helpless feeling that is.
During our vacation it took five days before I finally ordered something in a restaurant that even remotely looked like what I had envisioned while perusing the incomprehensible menu.
The following conversation took place multiple times:
Me: “Did I order this?”
My wife: “I think so.”
Me: “What is it? I ordered a pork type thingee. This looks like fish.”
My wife: “No, I think you ordered chicken. That looks like veal.”
Me: “Waiter? What exactly is this?”
Waiter: “It iz vhat you ordert: the Vegetarian Special.”
The only reason I finally got a meal that matched my original idea is because I cheated. While struggling yet again with a menu, I happened to see an attractive entrée being served to a nearby table. I grabbed the waitstaff person by the elbow, marched over to the other table, pointed to the dish and said, “I’ll take that, Wolfgang. Capice?” (On further reflection, I don’t think “capice” was the correct word to use in that situation, nor do I think her name was Wolfgang.)
It was interesting to have 46 different German language cable channels on the hotel TV. Being a male of the species, it was my duty to sit there for prolong periods and channel-surf up and down the dial anyway, to my wife’s chagrin. Hey, it’s a guy thing.
(There actually was one English speaking channel, an international CNN station. I couldn’t stand to watch, as all they talked about was the terrible U.S. economy and the dismal dollar-to-euro exchange rate, something I was painfully familiar with at that point.)
While channel surfing, I did pause for a while on the station that was showing “The Simpsons” with German voiceovers. Even in German, you could tell right away that Bart was a smart-aleck, Lisa was a brainiac, and Homer was a dummkopf.
I was unable to find the German translation for one of my favorite phrases: “A 20-ounce Dunkin Donuts Styrofoam cup with travel lid, please.” Austria is one place Dunkin Donuts has yet to conquer. When I first realized this fact, at about 6:30 p.m. the first evening in the country, I thought it was kind of refreshing and quaint. By 6:30 a.m. the next morning, however, I thought it was the worst thing ever.
They do have coffee in Austria (danke Gott!), but they do a very weird thing with it: they serve it in coffee cups. We haven’t used coffee cups in America in decades. Nowadays we use mugs, jumbo mugs, travel mugs, and 5-gallon-bucket mugs. I should’ve ordered my coffee in a beer stein. (But I probably would’ve gotten veal.)
In any language, on any continent, there is a universal symbol for brotherhood and peace and goodwill toward men: the breakfast buffet. Regardless of the country, regardless of the language, with me it always comes back to food, doesn’t it? Jawohl, mein freund.
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