Sunday, December 12, 2010


I arrived in San Francisco in late summer of 1971. They told me we were about to enjoy Indian Summer. The days were hot as they had been in Italy where I usually spent my summers but to my astonishment, there was no lingering on the patio after sunset, gone was the reward for making it through the heat of the day, the chill of the night air quickly drove us inside.

Those summer days were filled with indoor and outdoor get-togethers. It was then I learned about the outdoor bbq, a typical American tradition. I knew about grilling out of doors but it was only for 'brochettes' what we call shish-kebabs in the US, specially prepared meat bits alternated with onions and mushrooms on a metal stick laid over the little grill. The big slab of meat slathered in BBQ sauce, the random hotdogs, the marinated chicken breasts tended by adults on the grill as the kids played outside was a new and welcome experience for me; it was true family affair and I loved it.

On this particular day in the park, a trip to the store was needed. No one seemed panicked that all was not just so. Another breath of fresh air: improvisation here we come. I cannot remember but I imagine I volunteered to tag along with a 13 year old girl, the family babysitter, another novelty; we giggled easily together. I enjoyed her carefree demeanor, no class struggle here between hired help and employers: it was all a big happy family, or so it seemed to me that day.

The assignment was to find salad makings. My mother being an excellent cook and my sister being older and always in charge in mom's absence, I never really learned to cook. I suspect I didn't mind. So here we are together in the produce section picking out likely canditates. As I turned over each head of lettuce looking for wilted leaves and examined the celery for dryness and brown spots, she ask incredulously: "have you had classes for this?'

I need at least an entire paragraph to explain that I was dumbfounded. It would be as if I asked you if you had taken classes on how comb your hair or pull on your socks: it was just a matter of common sense! It gave me a peek into the American way of thinking, and reminded me of an American diet my grandmother had asked me to translate during my last year in France: it had to do with calories and fat and such like, words I have never heard before. I never did translate the diet for my grandmother, not having a clue as to what a calorie was. Here again it struck me how scientific the bent of American thinking was: the experts will know, let's take a poll, make a study, do research.

All of that hit me when I looked into her face. She obviously had much more confidence in the word of what she considered to be a learned person than in what her own eyes could tell her about our poor celery. Years later, I realize how much that thinking has permeated my own. To be sure, there's something to be said for it but that day, what I thought can best be translated by an expression I would learn later: that's just too much.

Back in the park, as we licked our lips of bbq sauce and crunched our salad everyone was chatting. Suddenly my little friend the babysitter interrupted the banter and exclaimed: oh, that's weird! Weird? I asked, what on earth does that mean? She paused. She said it again loudly as if I were deaf: WEIRD! How do you spell it? I asked. Another blank stare. She tried to spell it but couldn't figure out if it was ei or ie and stopped again. I trudged on without a visual image of the word. Well? I asked, what does it mean? She searched her brain.. well... she hesitated... it means.. uh....weird, you know? No, I did not know, I had never even hear the word before. Now she added hand movements and became a bit agitated... weird, weird, you know.. I mean, when somethings weird, it's just '...weird!

I never got it. I just let it go for that afternoon in the park with our delicious salad, bbq chicken hot dogs, steak, tablecoths and dessert, frisbees and sunshine, children playing and dogs frolicking. I loved America. I'd get it later.

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