Although I do my best to blend in and not make a spectacle of myself while travelling abroad there are times when I have blundered, sometimes in spectacular fashion. I think anyone who’s ever visited a foreign country can relate- mangle a pronunciation here, misunderstand a sign there, and suddenly you’re the laughingstock of the general vicinity. I’d like this to be a semi-regular feature but fortunately, my stories aren’t endless. So, for future installments I’d like to solicit stories from the rest of you as well- Americans or not.
Riquewihr France, 2002
Kang and I were travelling through eastern France with our friend Don. Riquewihr is a beautiful medieval walled village in the middle of Alsatian wine country near Colmar- the nearby hills are dotted with vineyards and abandoned castles. My only previous experience in France had been in Normandy, along the northern coast. Although the Normans were (much to my surprise) quite hospitable and I enjoyed much of their cuisine, I quickly discovered that Alsatian food was very different, and very, very good. Alsace is on the German border, and during various parts of history has been part of Germany- the blend of French and German culinary influences in this region leads to some mind-bendingly great food.
That first afternoon in Riquewihr I had been introduced to flammenküche, aka tarte flambée. How I had managed to walk the earth for 30-some years and never taste this gastronmonical delight is beyond me. One of the most cherished memories of my life is sitting in an outdoor courtyard on a cool spring afternoon, drinking Kronenbourg 1664 and eating my first flammenküche (oh, getting married and seeing my son born were cool, too).
I had sometimes struggled with the food in Normandy (we had two mystery meals- one good, one not), but the Alsatian cuisine was leading me to become more adventuresome every day. It is with this mindset that I entered a restaurant in Riquewihr for dinner. The place was obviously very old, with ancient exposed timbers holding the roof and a collection of antique farming equipment adorning the walls. I was in an exceptionally good mood that night- we were in a delicious smelling restaurant in a charming little village in a beautiful region of a wonderful country, and I was positive I would shortly be eating one of the best meals of my life. We settled into our table, and before long the waiter came with menus and silverware. He also deposited a parfait glass on the table, containing something that in the dim light looked a bit like unpopped popcorn. It didn’t look like any appetizer I’d ever seen, but I was not about to miss out on any facet of the Alsatian gastronomical experience because of any smallminded American biases. I quickly took a piece and ate it.
It was, in fact, stale unpopped popcorn. I was attempting to figure out what possible edible application this could have when our waiter returned with a votive candle and an absolutely horrified look on his face. He quickly placed the candle in the parfait glass, lit it, and ran away from our table. I had eaten part of the centerpiece.
To Don’s everlasting credit, he stoically took a piece of the popcorn and ate it himself. “There, now you’re not alone” he said. I don’t remember what I ate that night, though I’m sure it was great. Every time the waiter reappeared he approached our table warily, as you’d approach a cage of wild monkeys that might, at any moment, begin flinging their feces around the room. There was no telling what these idiotic Americans and their friend of undetermined European origin (Kang) might do next. We left quickly after the meal, and repaired to the bar across from our hotel where my two companions laughed loud and long at my stupidity.