Menus leave me muddled. Even in English, here they’re mysteries. There is a whole page of reindeer meat specials thousands of miles from a sniff of snow. On another, plated palmistry is offered alongside deep fried frog and stomach stew.
When they come in my own language, I
have at least a little control. I can snigger at the silly English, feel superior in a sentence. More often ‘translation’ is just a tiny photograph of food as places pitch for multilingual by pulling words out of the picture. I squint, intent as any seer reading stones or bones, and try to work out what the dish might be – animal or vegetable, beetle or bug.
Almost always the menus won’t speak to me. They call me foreigner, ignorant and ignore me. I’d probably do the same. Their words look like code – butterfly flight paths laminated into letters.
I laugh at myself looking line by line, as if this alien language is just an optical illusion which the right focus might crack. Nothing swims into view. These symbols just don’t speak to me.
There is a bright side. I’m compelled to be creative. I eye the plates that clutter tables for something to point out. I take crumpled notes written by local friends and hand them over, sheepish, pinking, mute. Most often I try for a word or two and see what I get. I guess. Results are variable.
I’ve had runny eggs spread sticky in sauce so hot it made my cry, meat that came with the tail still on, something that looked like worms in coconut soup. I’ve had tongue-taste wonders, delicate with spice. Those I rarely manage to order twice…. They get lost in the lottery but I enjoy each mouthful that bit more because they may never be repeated.
I am powerless, wordless, senseless, restaurant stupid, but there’s adventure in my ignorance. Every day is an experiment. Results are mixed.
Food can come with teeth. Some nights find me kneeling, praying pleading to the vomit gods. I wake to hear my stomach scream, feel it scratch, as if it’s been made sentient, separate and somehow wholly pissed with me. I beg forgiveness, promise caution. They’re pledges I soon forget, next time, hungry, looked baffled at a menu.