The other day, I found myself – unsurprisingly – in a diner. I had some time to kill, and needed some lunch. One cheesesteak-and-fries later, I was on my way.
There’s something…comforting about diners. About greasy spoons in general. It’s easy to anticipate the menu – generally, if not specifically. I can choose between burgers, waffles, pancakes, French toasts, omelettes, sandwiches, meatloaves, milkshakes. It’s easy to anticipate the nostalgia; the realness; the folks you’ll see there. Some diners cash in on the hipsters, and cash in on the nostalgia; others just…are. I love them all.
Sometimes though, a diner is out of reach. Sometimes, I’m somewhere else. And sometimes, I (eventually) find out what I like there too…but sometimes, those pesky language and culture barriers insert themselves into the conversation.
Sometimes, a place lulls me into complacency; like those blue vinyl stools in front of a counter, facing the griddle behind it, seen through the plate glass window on a balmy March evening in downtown Lisbon.
My calves were aching from wandering the hilly streets. My camera’s memory card was that much fuller. I was ready for food; and those blue stools looked ever so invitingly full of regular-looking folks. My fingers felt at home flipping through the plastic menu. There was only one problem: I couldn’t read Portuguese.
I…didn’t know what anything was. I could, to a degree, figure out the meats from the fish…but was otherwise lost. So when the counterman came back, I just shrugged and pointed to…something. It looked like it would have onions in it, so I was already a step ahead. I sat and waited…until my curiosity got the better of me and I pulled out my tiny pocket phrasebook.
I had ordered liver and onions.
It would have been, years prior – as a formerly picky eater – a disaster. I had finally had my error of pointing – “I’ll have that” – and getting something…”gross.” I almost regretted it, sitting in this diner, that I wasn’t having my usual, comforting diner food.
But I was knee-deep in experience; in adventure. I couldn’t turn back now. I swallowed my pride…and half a plate of fried liver and onions.
See…it wasn’t my usual, comforting diner food. But it was someone’s. Maybe not those people next to me having those normal-looking sandwiches, but someone’s. At some point, maybe.
And so I wandered back out into the balmy Lisbon air; back over the tiled sidewalks; back to my hotel. And I remembered the times I’d been vaguely successful at the pointing, the “I’ll have that” trick. That time in rural China that I’d gotten the amazing pork and cabbage. That time in Hiroshima that I’d discovered my love of okonomiyaki, at a similarly inviting, similarly familiar stool, opposite a griddle. But those times, I had either a vague enough command of the language, or a menu with an English translation.
But I ate the liver I’d ordered; or quite a bit of it anyway. I tried more than a bite. And then I went on my way.
I would eventually find my way back to my familiar. I would have my biscuits and gravy; my sausage, egg, and cheese on English muffin; my stacks of hotcakes; my cheesesteaks with fries; in my familiar booths and at my familiar countertops.
Except now, I could say I’d had a “nostalgic” meal in a nostalgic place; or, at the very least, I’d have a good story for my non-picky – my much more culinarily adventurous – family.