phrasebook diplomacy

4th st, santa rosa

While sketching this building, across from the Cancer Survivor Plaza in Santa Rosa, I listened to a Portuguese audio phrase book on my mp3 player, to learn some of the language. I think I learnt some, but kept thinking “Rui Costa”. I’ll get there, maybe. I grew up reading Berlitz phrase books, and it’s interesting to see how they have evolved, or not. The audio versions are especially fun, as they often switch between a British and an American accent with comic ease. The British accent is always very RP, as you’d expect, and you can almost see them quietly queuing and smiling politely while bristling on the inside. The one with the American accent, however, always seems to get the ‘complaining about the service’ phrases, the tone being that he really would like to enjoy this exotic foreign food but the waiters keep ignoring him, and there’s nowhere on this damn train to put my heavy luggage. I keep imagining the couple from that episode of Fawlty Towers.

It’s funny; in a way, after years of California I have become that guy from Fawlty Towers. My last visit to London, we had lunch at a pub by the Thames, near Tate Modern. It was ten past twelve, and my young niece wanted pancakes; the ones on the menu sounded scrumptious. Not possible, the young woman taking the order told me, as pancakes are a breakfast item and that ‘stops’ at twelve. There was nothing else that she wanted, and all the lunch items were very expensive. It was not busy there at all. Can we not have the pancakes anyway? “No.” No? Can you ask the chef? “Well, ok I’ll ask,” was the aggrieved response; obviously asking the chef anything was like trying to get audience with the Great Oz. She went and asked the chef. The chef said he could do it, but only for one person. One person! Well that’s a relief, good job it was only ten minutes after breakfast time, or that pancake mix and that pan would have magically vanished into thin air.

I must point out actually, credit goes to my Californian wife for helping resolve that one. My British customer attitude was actually prepared to back down at one point (what we British do best is go back to our table to moan, but do nothing about it). In the end, California prevailed and my niece got her pancakes, and they were very nice too. Next time though, I’ll ask for a Waldorf Salad and a Screwdriver.

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