"That's all a vacation is: Just us eating in a place we've never been."
It was the summer of 1999, and I was eating breakfast at my friend's kitchen table in Freiburg, Germany. Paul had been a foreign exchange student in Pennsylvania several years earlier. We shared a photography class and hung out much of senior year. My high school's German class sent students to Freiburg every year, but that's not why I was there. We had already graduated high school, and in any case I had never taken a German class. I had been (relatively) nearby in Britain for my college's summer abroad program. I was unlikely to ever be in Europe again, so my parents arranged a two-week-long visit with Paul before my return home.
I memorized a total of three German phrases for this trip: When I called Paul's home from London I asked, "Hallo, ist Paul zu hause?" so I could tell him when to pick me up at his airport. That phrase proved unnecessary because anyone who answered the phone at his house spoke English perfectly. When I was wandering around Freiburg on my own and someone on the street spoke to me I broke out my other two phrases: "Ich bin Amerikaner. Sprechen sie Englisch?" Invariably, the local had offered only a passing comment and my response compelled them to repeat themselves: "Ah. Ok. I said it is hot today." After a few of these interactions I decided to reply with only a casual nod and a knowing "MmmmHmm" as if I fully comprehended and agreed with whatever small point they were making. My identity as an ignorant American tourist was thus hidden... until it came time to order food. On my first day in the country I relied on Paul to order my lunch. He suggested a menu item he described as a "sausage salad". Ok, like a chef's salad, I thought. It revealed itself to be a heaping bowl of shredded bologna all covered in olive oil (I couldn't eat more than a two bites). At local music festival a man at a crepe booth reprimanded me with, "You know, saying 'chocolate crepe' in German isn't that hard. It's just schokoladencrêpe." The crepe man was right. The German word looks intimidating with so many letters and that diacritical mark over the "e", but it sounds pretty close to what I'd normally say in English. I did purchase a German-English dictionary early in my trip, but I had been drawing and pasting in it as a sketch book instead of trying to learn the language.
At Paul's home we ate muesli every morning. Muesli with milk, yogurt, and little red berries that I had never seen before. They appeared in clusters on a stem—like grapes, but tiny. I asked Paul what these berries were, and he said, “I don’t know what the English word is. We call them Johannisbeeren.” It was surprising to find a fruit in Europe that we don’t have in the States. When I was a kid my mom enjoyed the novelty of bringing home lesser-known produce. As I got older our local grocery store added formerly-obscure fruits and vegetables such as black raspberries (not to be confused with black berries), jicama, kiwifruit, and starfruit. (My mom's food adventures must have ended after I left home—it wasn't until we were having dinner in Disneyland in 2017 that she first tried eating avocado). My college roommate and I regularly caught the end of Philadelphia's FOX 29 evening news while we were waiting for Simpsons re-runs to come on. We became ironic fans of Green Grocer Johnny Lerro and his "produce tip of the daaaaaaaay." The segment's allure was all in the Green Grocer's drawn out catch-phrase, but we also learned a lot about fruits and veggies.
I had arrived in Germany, assuming that I had an adequate familiarity with fruit—even the B-list berries—but the Johannisbeeren were an enigma. Their full identity was hidden from me until a few years after my Germany trip. I was shopping in a Maryland health food store when I came upon a display shelf piled with clusters of the familiar Johannisbeeren. My eyes darted to the tiny sign that at last revealed, "Red Currants". The exotic German berries had been currants all along. Of course, I had heard of currants long ago, but I hadn't known what they looked like. I mean, how often do Americans see whole fresh currant berries that aren't smooshed into jam or dried into shriveled raisin look-a-likes?
In 1995 my high school French class spent nine days in France where I encountered another culinary mystery. Dinners were planned, while lunches were up to us. Each day I bought a jambon et fromage. In one Medieval walled city our class stopped at a lunch place that had sold out of my regular ham and cheese sandwiches. I recognized the word jambon in the name of another baguette sandwich, so I ordered the jambon cru instead. The meat was startlingly soft and chewy. It was only after eating that I overheard our teacher warn the group "Hey, everybody. Don't to order the jambon cru. It’s raw ham. Cru means raw." Mon dieu! Am I going to start puking on this tour bus? I did not, and I enjoyed thinking of myself as being adventurous foodie (thanks naiveté!) for over twenty years. Last year I was telling this story of survival to our travel agent friend. "Well," she replied, "cru literally translates as 'raw', but it's not really. It just means it's been cured. Like prosciutto."
At the very end of 2018 my wife Kelly and I were vacationing at a resort in Florida. A comment on her beachy Instagram photo let her know that a friend of hers happened to be staying only a few miles away. So on the evening before New Year's Eve we met for dinner. Neither of us had met her husband before. Kevin had grown up in Germany, but moved to Canada twenty years ago (could it be the same year as my German vacation?). We sat in a row along the bar. As our wives talked to each other he looked over the menu and paused on this description:
Roasted Heirloom Carrots $10
candied bacon, hazelnuts, labnah, pickled currants, espellete
Kevin asked the bartender, “What are ‘currants’?” The bartender paused, "Uh, I think they're like a grain." My eyes widened. I was going to save the day! Of the very short list of words I had learned in Germany, this was one of them. I had held onto the translation for almost twenty years, and I was going to use it in real conversation. I jabbed Kevin in the shoulder, “Johannisbeeren! Currants are Johannisbeeren!” He looked at me and then down at the menu again. “Ohhh, ok...” He ordered a burger instead.
P.S. I don't know what an "espellete" is, and I'm choosing to not look it up—despite the fact that I have the internet now. I'm sure that I will find out naturally in a decade or two.