I am afraid of everything but, above all, I am afraid of eating out, alone, in foreign languages. Afraid of the moment when I must push open the door and stand there as the wait staff discovers I am a hopeless moron: I have not been here before, I do not know the routine, I cannot speak, I do not understand. Do I wait to be seated? Should I just sit down? Could someone please arrange to rescue me now by helicopter?
It is the moment of evaluation that is the worst, followed by the careful pasted smile of the waitress or the flash of annoyance across the busy waiter’s face.
I have been eating out in foreign languages most of my life. Which goes to show that some things do not get better. No. The fact is, in Asia it was completely different. There was no moment of evaluation. Everyone assumed I was a moron the moment they saw me.
It’s so much easier – though certainly this was one of the things that made life in Tokyo so very odd – to earn good money and always be treated like a severely disabled child.
There’s a lot to be said for it – I realize, too late, here in Chile, where everyone must always discover afresh that I am a helpless moron who does not speak the language.
Now I will tell funny and heartwarming anecdotes about how I overcame my fears, about how you too can overcome --- . Except. Shit. I haven’t overcome anything. Ever.
So therefore I will shift, slightly, and recommend this variety of terror to travelers who wish to incorporate weight loss into their travel this season. When I left the U.S. I was about ready to resign myself to a 34 inch waist. Now all that keeps my 32 inch jeans from landing around my ankles is the long piece of string I use to cinch them around my waist.
Five weeks of anxiety and avoiding restaurants has melted 15 pounds right off of me. Other people may want to try this. If you are scared enough you can lose weight even in your (broken, fitful) sleep!
For more about this, please see my forthcoming blockbuster, The Deep Fear Diet. A hundred thousand advance copies have already been sold and I am booked for every one of the morning talk shows. Which scares the living crap out of me.
Why am I holding up my pants with string, you ask? My belt broke. If you think I am about to march into a store and demand something as difficult, as fiendishly complex, as a belt – obviously you are not paying attention.
I choose restaurants purely on the basis of terror. Wherever seems least terrifying, that’s where I go. Half empty glass fronted tourist pits most frequently. What I actually want to eat is no consequence. Of course I want to eat at the crowded humming places where all the locals go, where everyone seems to just magically know what’s on the menu.
But that’s out of the question.
Which is why I am writing these notes at Mr. Jack’s Burger Bar, despite the fact that it is phenomenally expensive and I am opposed to beef on multiple levels. In fact, I am one of those excruciating people who can tell you 25 reasons why you should NEVER eat a hamburger, for reasons ranging from the individual to the planetary, and from high philosophy to hygiene. I feel very deeply about this and would list all the reasons here and now, except that it seems bad form to do so while waiting for a half pound blue cheese bacon burger.
If only I could simply appear as a hulking, loud, ignorant Norteamericano – well, one more is hardly likely to cause a stir. The problem is that I am unable to conceal the fact that I am dreadfully, dreadfully nervous. In an Edgar Allen Poe sort of way. I am terribly nervous. And that makes other people nervous too. They want to know why I am nervous.
They fail to understand that naturally I am petrified of the petite and smiling waitress, and of the busy waiter who couldn’t care less about a thing and would be satisfied if I just jabbed my finger at the menu.
You see, Chileans, on the whole, are rather spectacularly nice. Yet I speak to them as though they all had suspicious moustaches and were holding rather spectacular swords.
Added to this absurdity (I use the word because others use it. It all seems perfectly reasonable to me.) I have now received three weeks of instruction in Spanish.
‘Received’ is a very strong word. The language was very capably taught. I was present in the room. I was conspicuously diligent. I understood what was said. I can even speak a little – if I can just take a few notes first and everyone will please wait through the stammering.
I was certain that Spanish lessons would clear up my fears. I can understand! I can speak a little! But no. My 3 weeks of Spanish are a tiny matchstick house and my fear is the vast and shaggy paw of the Abominable Snowman who, it turns out, lives in the Andes and is native to Chile.
Stomp, stomp, goes the Snowman. The terrible and enormous shaggy snowman of fear, who, absolutely everywhere I go, insists on dining out with me.
What the hell is going on?
The truth is, even in English my speaking is a little odd. (The rules of polite behavior dictate that, at this moment, you ought to appear slightly surprised.) My sentences appear amid pauses and stammering and often sound rehearsed, unnecessarily convoluted and perhaps, even, slightly unnatural.
I cannot explain except to say that, to me, language appears conspicuously important. Extraordinarily weighted and powerful and I cannot relax in its vicinity anymore than I could while holding a gun.
Here we could perhaps pause a moment to reflect in gratitude on the fact that writing is my vocation. Rather than, say, firearms.
Naturally I make mistakes continuously. As should be expected. What with this language standing over me all the time, like a looming and omnipotent waiter, who may bring what I want or who may not.
Words matter terribly. Overmuch. Like a woman so important I cannot think clearly in her presence. Like a man so beautiful.
Which is why I find television so disturbing, as it spews out non-stop careless and bossy words. Or the plantations of columnists or bad novelists, where words are bred, and penned and shorn like sheep.
This must be the problem. This thing called language. Which is a synonym for action. Which is a synonym for karma. Which is a synonym for the fact that, at every moment, every single thing is at all moments interconnected and entirely dependent upon every other thing.
I am unable to escape the feeling that absolutely everything matters. Therefore it is no surprise if I sometimes feel overwhelmed, dining out in foreign languages.