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Born-again rabbit (06/03/2007)
By John Edstrom

A stock subject for anecdotes of foreign travel is the ludicrous, sometimes excruciating misunderstandings that can arise from experimenting with the local tongue, within which one is not entirely fluent, or trying to make oneself understood to a foreigner who has no English, but speaks rapidly in his native tongue, of which you are blissfully ignorant.

In my family, probably the best example goes back many years to a trip to Germany undertaken by one of my brothers, who will go unnamed. (No, you are not necessarily to assume that it is the one who still lives in Winona, I being the soul of discretion.) He found himself in a restaurant, needing to visit the Toilette. This was in the days before you could rely on the international symbols of gender, trousers for gents, skirts for the ladies.

Entering a hallway off the dining room, he was confronted with one door posted "Herren," and one reading "Damen." What to do, and not a lot of time to think about it, innards now having been exposed to travel and an unaccustomed diet for a number of days. He reasoned, quickly, that the "Her" in "herren" had to refer to the feminine gender, and likewise, the "men" in "Damen," to the masculine.

And so he entered the door marked "Damen," remarking, uneasily, the absence of urinals. Maybe they don't have them here, he thought. Didn't they tell me that some places only have a hole in the floor? Nevertheless, he entered one of the stalls, resolving to be quick about it. Alas, the door from the hall opened again, and after a second's horror, (ein Augenblick, the blink of an eye) the unmistakable staccato of high heels on tile.

Thus, my brother learned first hand the grim danger of trying to intuit cognates in a foreign language. The English cognate to the German word "Damen" is of course, "dame," not "men," and I can think of none at all for "Herren."

Language students at any level can run into trouble the same way, as I learned, once again, this time in Italy last month. We were at a regional food and wine tasting festival in the Friuli, the part of Italy lying northeast of Venice, south of Austria and just a few miles west of the Slovenian border. It is the area Hemingway writes about in his stories of the Italian front during WWI, and the setting of his novel, "A Farewell to Arms," stunningly beautiful mountainous country. The food and wine, of course, are also beautiful.

Most game animals in Europe are private property, and not controlled by the government. Game has a prominent place in the fanciest cuisine there, in season. I gravitated to the booth selling samples of "coniglio" (rabbit), and "lepre" (hare). It is a rare day that you encounter rabbit on the menu in this country and, never, in my experience, hare, so I was pleased to try both, along with a light Friulian white wine with a wash of Moretti Beer, wonderful in Italy if very cold, hardly worth bothering with in the U.S. as it doesn't travel at all.

I began to feel that familiar sense of well-being, and with it, a certain confidence in my Italian. "La lepre," I asked, "e salva?" I thought I was asking if the hare was wild, or game, guessing where the Spanish word, "salvaje" would go in Italian. Smiles, but uneasy ones, with merely tentative nods of the head. I continued, "Pero, il coniglio e domestico, no?" (But the rabbit is domestic, right?) Now they all replied, "Si, si, domestico," with great enthusiasm.

Later I consulted my dizionario, and discovered that I was a little bit off the mark with "salva" which means not "wild," but "safe" or "saved." They must have thought they were dealing with some sort of religious zealot who would only eat saved, or perhaps, born-again rabbit.




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