A few days ago I went to an Italian place not far from my dorm. It was structured like a made-to-order buffet: At the beginning you get a card from the cashier, then you go around whatever stations you want – pizza, pasta, dessert, etc. There you take a menu, tell the staff what you want, and they cook it right in front of you. After they give you the food, you place the card down on a machine that records the cost of the food, so that after you’re done ordering and eating, you give the card back at the front desk and the cashier tells you how much to pay in total.
I went to the pasta section. I read off the German menu and chose Pasta Bolognese, to which the cook responded with a nod. He began to pour oil and meat and vegetables into his pan, occasionally asking me questions like what type of pasta I wanted and whether or not I wanted garlic, all at a rapid, practiced pace. I had just come back from my three-and-a-half-hour German class, during which my brain became so overloaded and overworked that I could feel an unpleasant strain as I wrote sentences for the final worksheet. In the lunchtime rush, the restaurant was noisy and crowded, and the fact that I had never been there before and wasn’t sure where to get the napkins or silverware made me a bit anxious. It also didn’t help that over the sound of the steaming pans and background chatter it was often hard to hear what the cook was saying, so I kept my gaze fixed on his face, focusing all my attention so as not to let any of his questions slip by.
Finally, he finished cooking the meat and started making the sauce, and asked me if I wanted chili in it. Now, I don’t like spicy food at all. The most I can tolerate is a mild burn, and even then I have to have some sour cream or water to tone it down. I understand what he’s asking me about – I make out the word “chili” and see him hold out a pair of small, red cubes in his hand. I quickly nod my head, and he tosses them into the bowl. I enjoy a few moments of long-awaited silence while he finishes up with the pasta, but at the same time I feel frozen and bound to the inevitable – I probably won’t be able to eat the pasta because it’ll be too spicy. But I push the thought aside; it was two tiny cubes. Maybe it won’t be that bad. I can handle a little bit of spicyness, and as long as I have something to drink, (I ordered some still mineral water beforehand), I supposed I’d be fine. He finished making the food, rips off a few basil leaves from a potted basil plant nearby, and puts them in the bowl. I put down the card to register the sum, and with a Guten Appetit, he gives me the bowl.
Well, I was right. The pasta was too spicy to eat. I managed to force down a third of the bowl, drinking lots of water, but after that I couldn’t keep going. All because I didn’t want to fish around for the right German expression and nodded just to make the question go away. Now I feel bad because the pasta really was good; it was just the spiciness overlaying the flavor that made it inedible. Later, I felt bad because I left a large bowl of it unfinished at the table that would now go to waste when the staff came to pick it up. At least I hadn’t been terribly hungry beforehand.
I’m usually fine with speaking German in public to people, and I actually prefer making an order in German than switch from German to English and gambling on whether or not the person I was talking to will speak enough English to accommodate this. Especially, you can just point to a menu item and read it off in German instead of bothering about the translation, or saying it in English pronunciation and likely getting it wrong. But I don’t know what it was about that restaurant – the mayhem, the noise, the fact that I was tired or that the cook was standing right in front of me and constantly waiting for me to tell him what else to put in the bowl. So I guess my stress was reasonable.
Though I wonder if it would have really been that hard to say “Nein, kein Chili bitte.”