I am a lout and a clown — at least that’s what my daughter Sara thinks whenever we are in public. So I’m on my best behavior when we’re together. I rein in my corny jokes, inquisitiveness, loud voice and tendency to mispronounce words.
She moved to Germany, and I went on 10-day visit. When I arrived, she took me to lunch. It seemed more like a bakery than a real restaurant, but I found out later that this was a typical German eatery. You order these little sandwiches that are already made from a display case. There’s cheese, or cheese with ham, cheese with chicken, cheese with turkey. That was it. I’m on a lifelong diet — bread and cheese are not what I eat, so I viewed these choices with dismay. The waitress didn’t speak English. I asked Sara to translate and see if I could have my sandwich on rye, with no butter or mayonnaise. Sara looked at me sternly, “Mom, I don’t think they do it that way here. The sandwiches are already made.”
“Oh, okay, but could you at least tell her not to put the tea bag in the pot. I can’t take tea that’s too strong.”
“Mom, just accept what’s given to you,” she whispered with an urgency that shut me up. I ate half the sandwich obsessed with the fact that Sara doesn’t have a scale in her house. The one thing I hate about traveling is the amount of weight I gain.
After we ate, I looked for a bathroom. Sara pointed downstairs. I climbed down these steep narrow steps and went through a series of hallways. I looked at one door that said “Damen.” My mind registered “The Men.” so I pushed open the other door. It happened to be the fire escape exit and a loud bell started ringing. People started running down stairs. German sounds along with gesticulating fingers surrounded me. I returned to the table hardly able to look my daughter in the eye.
When I asked Sara if I could get a doggie bag for the rest of my sandwich, she hissed “Mom, they don’t do that here. You’re expected to eat the whole meal and no one says doggie bag — even in America!”
For the rest of the trip, I ate what was given to me and tried my best not to make a spectacle of myself. If we went out to dinner, I still got frowns of disapproval from my daughter when I brought along some potato chips to nibble with my drink or tried to smuggle some food out in a plastic bag. But for the most part, I was quiet and reserved, blending into the stern Teutonic culture.
My 10 days are up! I meet my husband at the airport terminal on Mendocino Avenue. I hug him, but I really want to hug the ground, the buildings, the city of Santa Rosa. He rushes me off to Lyons. No fancy stuff for me — I want no-nonsense, family style food.
As I enter the restaurant, my voice is deliberately several decibels louder than usual. But I have immunity. No one turns around and stares. There’s no grim disapproval.
A glass of Chardonnay floats into my hand. It’s in an outrageously large glass, a whole three quarters full. My little bag of peanuts from the plane shamelessly appears, and I munch away. I survey the cornucopia-like menu: Turkey Special, Southwestern Shrimp Salad, Chicken Strips, Tri Tip Platter, BBQ Ribs, Atlantic Salmon.
The waitress arrives. Smiling broadly, she asks how we’re doing. I gush as I tell her all about my trip and how happy I am to be back. She smiles and chats with me. My garrulousness doesn’t phase her — she’s just serving a normal American customer.
I pepper her with questions. Are the steaks really good or just so so? What about the ribs? How popular is the salmon? Could she repeat all the different kinds of salad dressing? Are the pies freshly made with real fruit?
I order a top sirloin, medium rare. Can she make sure there are ample onions, no butter on the French bread, substitute a salad for the potatoes, put the dressing on the side and bring some Worcester sauce? I ask for decaf coffee, one quarter coffee, the rest hot water. Is there any low-fat milk and brown sugar back there? Could she be sure to bring the coffee toward the end of the meal?
She cheerfully obliges. I know there’s going to be a lot of food, but hey, no problem — they have doggie bags.
The wine eases me to lean back in my seat and survey the tacky non old-world ambiance. I bask in the garish plastic menus, fake wood paneling, booths with vinyl cushioning, air conditioner blasting away ignoring energy-saving precautions.
Dinner arrives. I dig in and gobble up. Freedom.
— Jean Wong
Jean Wong is an award-winning poet, memoir and fiction writer and her work has been produced by the 6th Avenue Playhouse, Petaluma Reader’s Theater and Off The Page. Her book, Sleeping with the Gods, has been recently published. When writing Jean sometimes proceeds like a mule — other times a brilliant racehorse speeds. Whatever the process, she’s amazed to be alive and telling the tale.