The Italian No-no Menu

By the nature of having an office that covers all of Europe in a multi-cultural city like Berlin, my colleagues are quite cosmopolitan. Maybe we don’t tick the definition’s “sophisticated” box, but we’re well versed and worldly on the whole. The fact that I speak only English with an educated-but-not-so-practiced understanding of Spanish makes me feel quite inferior at times. (The fact that I keep our translation projects moving is another story.) More importantly, I have constant opportunities to learn, and I value that personally.

On paper, I’m learning German, but in reality I’m learning much more. While we’ve been on a break for most of April and May, I’ve taken classes in levels A1 and A2 over the past seven months. (Europe has a standardized system for measuring language proficiency and designated courses: A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.) I’ll be resuming lessons again soon with the same teacher, and I am honestly eager to return to having my brain re-wired with German vocabulary and grammar in the 8 am sessions. Nothing like the mind-wrenching confusion of 30+ German articles for a breakfast buffet, am I right?

While business predominantly happens in English, the conversations around me at work are peppered with Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French, and German pops up everywhere in my life. As someone who’s highly attentive and observant of my environment, it helps to have conversations around me in other languages. For one advantage, there’s no need, desire, or ability to be distracted by eavesdropping. When I step out of the office at the end of the workday, I sometimes surface a conscious reminder: “Stephen, you’re in Germany. Be prepared to hear German.”

Admittedly, I’m rarely prepared enough, but I try! I would benefit from a tattoo on my forehead that reads: “I’ll try to understand your German if you speak slowly for me.” Fortunately in Berlin, I can almost always switch to English in public interactions. When I’m out and about and want to practice my German pronunciation, I simply read the signs around me and listen to other peoples’ conversations, merely to train my ear in hearing the sounds. I think it’s working, more or less.

Nonetheless, I socialize quite a bit with my colleagues, and I’m pretending to fit in to each of their backgrounds and languages. I’ve learned one Italian sentence: “Posso havare un panzerrotto per favore?” (Can I have a panzerrotto, please?) An affirmative response – “si” – should be followed by “grazie mille” (thank you very much). All of this must be said with grandiose Italian intonation and gesture. While that’s all the Ital-lingo I’ve learned, there are some critical lessons about Italian culture that I wish to impart on my non-Italian readers:

  • If you want to order a sandwich, order a panino. Panini is plural, and we ignorantly look like hungry misfits when ordering “a panini” in Italian.
  • Don’t serve cheese with fish. Ever. And if you’re offered cheese – for example, grated parmesan – on a seafood dish in an Italian restaurant, you better second guess their origins.
  • Don’t serve chicken with pasta. Ever. This one blows my mind. What was my American childhood? According to my sources there is no chicken pasta primavera in Italy. I’m sorry for all of us who have been wronged.
  • And if your heart isn’t broken yet, I’m sorry. Fettucine alfredo (and the whole concept of alfredo sauce) is an American invention that you won’t find authentically in Italy. 

I’ve got a short trip to Malta coming up in July. Maltese? Italian? English? If I’m not lucky, my brain will switch to Spanish when I return to Germany, like in 2011 when I returned to Denmark from a weekend in Germany. And if I am lucky, I’ll avoid any culinary sins and misconceptions.

You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.

It’s 6:22 am. Steam billows over the top of my blueberry-adorned Maine coffee mug on the ledge of my balcony, the Earl Grey tea inside half-consumed. Gradually cooling to being drinkable, the tea pries my eyes open. The sun continues rising, shedding a plain of warm yellow light onto my face, forcing my eyes to squint. Car tires simmer on the street below, coming and going like ocean waves. Street trams and ambulance sirens join the symphony. The sputter of a motorcycle’s exhaust, now gone.

Ten years ago, all of my five alarm clocks would still be waiting to sound, waiting for my hand to begrudgingly reach and disarm. Thud. The floor interrupts the fall and finally triggers my brain awake. I crave more sleep, but time is up. A paper, two exams, a newspaper assignment… all due today. I dress myself, stagger across the chilly tile floor, and tap Mom awake.

“Will you proofread my essay,” I say, somewhere between a request and a statement. I needed her vote of confidence.

Despite knowing that I stood above my peers in schoolwork, I cringe. I’ve read that if you don’t cringe when you look at your past, you’re not improving. Advice that seems mildly wise – can cringing be good? – feels fully validating to acknowledge my parenting. Mom bragged about me, and I told her to stop. I needed comments that made me feel better, not stories that impressed adults. Change one comma. The essay is great. My heart slows.

Twenty-seven feels weird. I’m youthful but adult-like. I’m free to make my own choices, yet I still share them in search of agreement. I have my place in the world, and the world has many more places to offer me. I became, and I am becoming.

I smile when I look in the mirror, and it’s because I’m proud of who I see. Two brown eyes stare back, pried open by warm tea and forced closed by warm sunlight, ready to face the day. It’s 6:49 am. My mind spills off the balcony, thinking of my bike below. I know each day is mine.

You raised me, and I’m still growing up. You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.