Butchering Foreign Languages

Thousands of miles apart, two butchers are cut from the same apron.

Last year, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Germany.  It was my second visit to the country, and one of the most surprising- and relieving- things that I learned is that the majority of Germans appear to have at least some degree of fluency in English.  As I speak no other languages apart from the smattering of phrases I pick up any time I travel abroad, this helped immeasurably; I was able to converse mostly without the assistance of my bilingual host.

On one particular day of our visit there, we stopped into a butcher shop.  Our host selected some local delicacy as a morning snack, and it was beyond good. The meat was fresh, the cheese was potent and creamy, and the bread was crispy on the edges and soft in the middle.  As we were standing just outside the shop, munching on our delightful meal, I remembered Black Forest Ham.

I capitalized the term for a reason.  Here in the states, there is a trendy meat product labeled black forest ham.  Like applewood smoked bacon or slow roasted chicken, that product is more adjective than substance; it still tastes like only a slight departure from the central protein with which we are all familiar.  So, when my host offered me Black Forest Ham on my first day in Heidelberg, I assumed I knew what I was in for.

I was wrong.

Among other natural features, there is a forest near Heidelberg called the Black Forest.  They produce, inter alia, ham.  Or, rather, Ham.  It tastes closer to prosciutto than to the stateside protein slop that passes as black forest ham in America, with a peppery smell and a crispness that is just…no, an adjective won’t work here.  You really should just to try it.

So, back to the butcher, we’re standing outside and I’m remembering how good that Black Forest Ham was, and I decide that I’m going to do something nice for my traveling companions.  I resolve to go back into the butcher shop, order about half a pound of Black Forest Ham, and we can take it along as a snack during our day, in which we planned to do several miles of country walking.  Resolved, I headed back into the shop.

Now, earlier I mentioned that most Germans I encountered speak at least some English.  The elderly man behind the counter in the butcher shop was not one of them.  Not only that, he didn’t even want to try.  No matter, I thought, I can point to what I want, and I know how to count to ten in German.  What could possibly go wrong?

Several things, as quickly became apparent.  First of all, counting to ten doesn’t give you the ability to say “one half pound.”  I tried to say “zero point five pounds” but that didn’t seem to translate, not the least of which because, like the rest of the civilized world, Germany is on the metric system.  The butcher looked bored.  Nobody else was in the store.  We were getting nowhere.

Frantically, I tried to remember my conversion tables between pounds and kilos.  One of them is bigger, about two times bigger, I seemed to recall.  I couldn’t remember which was bigger.  I decided to take a gamble.  “Ein kilo,” I clearly articulated, pointing to the Black Forest Ham.  Without a word, he lifted the meat, and began slicing.

It only took a few moments for me to realize that this was going to be more than half a pound.  The pile of meat kept growing.  Finally, he stopped.  It was five inches tall.  He reached for another piece of meat, and continued slicing.  My friends were at the window, still outside, looking at me with a mix of humor and confusion.  I had purchased 2.2 pounds of meat “as a snack.”  We ate it for the rest of our trip, with every meal, and never did finish it.  It still tasted great.

That anecdote was on my mind today as I walked into the grocery store around the corner from my apartment in Queens, New York.  I needed a pound of skirt steak, and walked up to the butcher.  Now, I should mention here that Queens is a big, diverse place, and my neighborhood, Jackson Heights, is overwhelmingly Ecuadoran and Columbian.  I am in the vast linguistic minority.  Still, most shop owners here can at least manage enough English to conduct transactions.

Not this butcher.

I pointed to the skirt steak, and confidently asked for one pound.  “Una pieza?”  He said.  “No, one pound, not one piece.”

He shook his head.  “Non, una pieza.”  He had decided for me.  With experience on my side from that German butcher last year, I decided not to take it lying down.  “No,” I said, “uno POUND.”

“Que?”

Frustrated, I pulled out my phone and started looking up the translation.  The metric system shouldn’t be an issue, I figured, as the prices were all listed by the pound.  Google came to the rescue. “Una libra!”  I was triumphant.

“Non,” he calmly replied, “una pieza.”

I got mad.  “Una libra!  Non una pieza.”

“Si, una pieza.”

“No!” I said, maybe a little too loudly.  Other customers were taking notice, which is always to be avoided in New York’s public places.  He didn’t respond.  He just put the single piece, una pieza, on the scale.

It weighed 0.98 pounds.

I’m not entirely sure if I blushed in embarrassment, but it’s likely.  I finished my shopping quickly and headed home, thinking of Germany, Jackson Heights, and the two unwritten rules I had learned: butchers can speak whatever language they damn well please, and we challenge them at our own peril.  Enough writing, dinner’s almost ready.

-AG

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Published in: on June 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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