We all find ourselves in amusing situations now and again. Communication gets garbled, things don’t seem to make sense, and we all have a laugh when it finally gets cleared up…’ah, thaaaaat’s what you meant’.
Now, add a thick layer of a cultural difference, and then splash no one speaking their native language over those same situations, and the comedy becomes complete. I, a pretty much non-Armenian speaker, have found myself in more than one perplexing conversation in Armenia through the years.
I witnessed one of these situations just two days ago here in Yerevan, as I sat at an outside table at Segafredo in Northern Boulevard with two colleagues from Norway and one from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dag, one of the Norwegians, pointed out on the menu what he wanted:
Dag: I would like the tiramisu with ice cream
Waiter: I am sorry, sir, we don’t have that today
Dag: OK, if you are sold out of tiramisu, can I have just ice cream?
Waiter: Oh, we have the tiramisu
Dag: So you are sold out of ice cream….
Waiter: No, we have ice cream
Dag: But you said you didn’t have tiramisu with ice cream
Waiter: We have tiramisu. And, we have ice cream. But we don’t have the tiramisu with ice cream.
Genc(the Bosnian, to the waiter) Are you Bosnian?
At this point all of us, waiter included, cracked up. We never did get a real understanding of what exactly the ins and outs of the tiramisu and the ice cream and the tiramisu with ice cream were, but we certainly had a good laugh, all of us around the table having been in similar situations in many different countries earlier.
Dag, not one to lose faith easily(he’s a pastor), proceeded to challenge destiny by ordering not chocolate ice cream and not vanilla ice cream, but a MIX of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and (am tempted to chalk this up to divine intervention) got precisely that. The small victories are the big ones.
The tiramisu, ice cream and tiramisu with ice cream situation was preceded several years earlier by the Duck with Fries Incident at what used to be a Greek restaurant over in Alex Manukyan street. It disappeared years ago- not the duck, the restaurant.
I don’t remember what the occasion was, but all of us on the staff of the Norwegian Refugee Council were having lunch there. With twelve or so present, the ordering routine was winding slowly around the table, ladies first.
I had gotten used to ordering what I wanted by the number, rather than the name. This was something restricted to cheap Chinese restaurants in my youth in the U.S., but in Armenia today it is used in most eating establishments.
For me, this is one of the best ways of avoiding language mishaps. Saying ‘fourteen’ is a lot easier than ‘chicken fillet lightly sautéed in a spicy ginger and red pepper sauce’… in any language, I suppose.
And then there is the enormity in length of some Armenian words. The word in Armenian for ‘pasta’ is erkarakloraxmoratsak. No, my keyboard did not get stuck there. That’s the word.
Need I say more?
So, when Garo the Greek waiter got to me…
Me: Can I have a number 27 please?
Garo: We don’t have that
Me: Ok, a number 43 then?
Garo: We don’t have that
Me: Right, how about a 36?
Me: Tell me, what do you have today?
Garo: We have duck with fries
Me: Sounds good. What number is that on the menu?
Garo: It’s not on the menu
At this point, I looked left towards Nara, my interpreter, my eyes pleading for assistance. She shrugged her shoulders and chuckled, indicating that it wasn’t going to get any better in her native Armenian rather than my shaky Armenian.
It is small episodes like these that make it so interesting to live in another country, to breathe another culture. Doing so broadens horizons, tests social skills and sometimes patience, but wow, is it worth it. And realizing that the country you live in can and does change you more than you can ever change it is something to have tucked behind your ear at all times.
There’s no place like home.
My home is where my hat is.