Američki Dnevnik 1: Hungarian Recipe – American Expletive

Mađarski Recept – Americka Psovka
An American Diary Article #1: I Didn’t See That Coming

My column in Croatian NewspaperThe expected is what keeps up standing, steady, still. The beginning, the unexpected is what changes our lives.” Quotes have always helped me to express or define myself as well as motivate me internally. This quote fits perfectly these days as the expected in my life is minimal lately. I expect to wake up, eat, walk, walk some more, see people, eat more, then sleep and expect to do it all again tomorrow. My Croatian life is unexpected. What lies between sunrise and sunset has been filled with unexpected events, questions, comments, misunderstandings, and answers. The beginning of life in a foreign country is leaving me with a lot of surprises. At the same time, being a stranger I have been asked the same number of questions as I have been asking. Looking at the humor in any experience is the only way I
know how to get by, patiently finding my own path in what seems like whole new world. I am fortunate enough get the chance to compare
worlds. I have found that my new friends here have the same curiosity
about our similarities and differences. There are an infinite number
of things you could compare, and we have. Situations where I don’t
even see the comment, question,  or answer coming end up being the
funny experiences that stick with me.
Usually the foods, seasonings, drinks, vegetables, etc, have a
parallel to a product familiar to me that I have a name for in
English. When I don’t understand what something is however, between a
few friends we are able to figure it out. A memorable exception is
when Grandma spoke up to save the day. I was invited to a Sunday
family lunch at my friend Ivan’s home. I looked forward to this
because of the quality and sheer mass of the food.  Feeling as if I am
part of a warm family atmosphere is something that I miss being so far
from home. We gathered around the table to eat as I found myself
surrounded by an array of bowls containing meats, cheeses, spreads,
and breads. I started eating everything as usual. My friend Ivan was
explaining what everything was and I had already begun tasting. Cheese
that grannies make in the village and sell at a market in town. A loaf
of bread made from corn, bought from the bakery down the street. Meat
from a pig, dried and kept in the fridge, now sliced into thin pieces.
Yogurt, thicker than I have ever seen, used to spread on bread. Then
came the red spread of something that Ivan or anyone else present
could not put into words. I had already taken some to try it at this
point and really didn’t mind not knowing what it is made from. If the
food is good and I like it I don’t need to know what it is,
bottom-line-if it’s good I’ll eat it!!

Ivan keeps searching for the words to describe the ingredients hoping
it will be familiar to me and I can associate it with the English word
for it. Nobody can think of an explanation. The whole family begins to
discuss in Croatian what words to use that can describe what this is.
A thick red flavorful paste, used in this region particularly, to
spread on your meats.  I can’t connect it to any word in English
because we don’t have something like this. With some foods it ends up
unexplainable because cuisine here is so specific to the area and
deliciously unique. I would consider it a spread from peppers,
tomatoes, and spices but I can’t come up with a specific name. Grandma
and Mom understand my English. Mom and I can communicate to one
another well. While she thinks her English is bad I have no complaints
as long as we understand each other. Grandma I am particularly
impressed with because she gathered her vocabulary solely from
television shows and movies without learning in school or courses. She
understands me speaking to her but can’t respond. Up to this point has
been fine for us to communicate, we found our own way to understand
each other and if she needs to, she will tell someone to translate her
response.

So we are almost done eating and she begins to clear dishes taking
them to the kitchen while we are still stuck on the red paste
discussion. It is one of those situations where you know you know what
you want to say and you know the words but they just aren’t coming to
you the way you want them to. This whole time you know that as soon as
you stop talking and thinking about then you will remember and not
even need the information anymore. Well, we wouldn’t have to wait
anymore because from the kitchen all I hear is Grandma yell “SHIT!”.
What? I am so confused. Did I really just hear that sweet old woman
yell Shit?? Yell an expletive? I’m thinking to myself  ‘wow, she
must’ve spilled something important or burned her hand on the oven’.
Then everyone starts laughing and I am left looking around confused at
what seems so funny and why shit was yelled. Why did she yell shit?
Well apparently shit is the Hungarian name for the paste and she
thought she had solved the debate with her most unexpected answer of
‘shit’. She had no idea what that meant in English so we explained
that it is a curse word which means feces then we could all laugh hard
together.

There are unexpected questions as well as unexpected answers. It is my
belief that you should not ask questions with potential response of
laughter or shock when someone has food in their mouth. This is
especially true when you are sitting across from them because you put
yourself in the line of fire. I specifically remember one of my first
Croatian dinners here with two friends, Maja who spoke English and
Josip who did not. We sat down to eat a delicious Slavonija meal.  I
was enjoying my perfectly warm and soothing tomato soup while my
friends are speaking, we are in our own worlds for the moment. Tomato
soup has become my favorite, something about it warms my whole body
when the cold weather pierces through my clothes and chills me to the
bone. Tomato soup reheats me from the inside out.  Maja sat to my left
with Josip across from me and they continued to talk while I
experienced my soul warming soup .

At this point my comprehension of the Croatian language is nothing,
they might as well be speaking in a Martian language. It sounds fast,
and although such a beautiful  and unique language, I understand
nothing. I am unable to distinguish individual words from within
single sentences. To my ears it sounds like racing mouths to see who
can speak the most in the shortest amount of time, leaving both
contestants out of breath. So I listen to the word race and then Maja
turns to me to translate while I continue to dine. Hesitating for a
moment, Maja looks at me, looks across the table to Jopsip, then back
to me. Finally and reluctantly she asks, “Are there Indians running
about your town?” Excuse me? Indians? I could not hold it in, the
laughter that is. I managed to cough down the soup, barely keeping it
in my mouth, while laughter gathered in my chest waiting for the soup
to pass so it can explode. Maja and I laughed for at least 5 minutes
before I could even start to answer that question seriously. Maja and
I are not quiet people, including laughter, and my laughter has always
been described as explosive. It is even truer when I am caught off
guard with bizarre questions. She was just the messenger and
understood the humor of this random question, not because it is a
stupid question but because it of the timing and sheer surprise of it.
Up to this point we had not even mentioned Indians of any kind.  Josip
sat quietly waiting for his answer, as confused by the laughter as I
was in my ‘shit pepper paste’ experience. Despite the laughter and
look on our faces he still wanted a serious answer. No. No there are
not Indians running about my town. At some point in history, yes there
were. Today however there are none.

So whether it has been an unexpected answer or question, in Croatia I
have had my mouth full of food and laughter and I expect to have more
of both.

*while article titles may have been changed for publication or for difficulty with translation, I posted the articles here with the titles I originally used. Appeared in April 23 2010

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