Traveling hungry – Part 2

by Steve Brock on June 19, 2013

My brother once told me there is no such thing as bad pizza. There’s great pizza and okay pizza, but rarely if ever do you find pizza you can’t eat. The same goes, in my experience, for teriyaki chicken, or so I thought. Which is one reason we’re at this out-of-the-way teriyaki restaurant after an unsuccessful attempt to find lunch elsewhere on a day trip less than 100 miles from home.

My son Connor stays in our car, practically the only vehicle in the parking lot. I enter into the restaurant. As I look around the desolate interior, I hear the whistle-like theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly playing in my head. I expect a tumble weed to blow through at any moment.

Instead, from the back of the restaurant comes a man who then stands behind the counter. He looks at me but says nothing. I examine the menu on the wall above and behind him. It’s the usual mix you find at a teriyaki place, the names of the dishes aided by helpful pictures and summary letter/number combinations. I decide on L5: teriyaki chicken with noodles.

“I’ll have the teriyaki chicken with noodles, please,” I tell him.

He gives a short grunt as he writes down the order. Then he looks at me. “No ice,” he says.

Alright, I think. That’s a good thing. Cold teriyaki is right up there with cold burritos. But ice and teriyaki isn’t a common combo, so I figure I’m missing something here.

“Yeah,” I say. “Just the teriyaki chicken with the noodles.”

He nods his head and makes a slightly different pronouncement: “No lice.”

Now you may be scratching your head for a number of reasons. But to me, I suddenly know what he’s saying.

Since the majority of teriyaki restaurants I’ve visited are run by people of Korean descent all serving up Japanese and Chinese food (I’ve never quite figured that one out), I’m on safe ground to assume my order taker here is also Korean.

Just a few weeks ago at the ESL class I teach at my church, one of my students explained that there are no “R” sounds in the Korean language (or in Japanese for that matter). Being from Korea himself, he can’t, for example, say “rerun.” We made him feel right at home because my Spanish-speaking students can’t pronounce the word “thought” and I can’t roll my R’s. I always get a laugh when I attempt to say the Spanish word for railway, “ferrocarrilero.” It comes out sounding like a herd of wild cows.

So, based on this, I quickly deduce that the gentleman behind the counter means that this dish has noodles only and “no rice.”

“No rice, just noodles,” I say in confirmation. “That’s fine.”

He nods with a sharp grunt and rings up to total. I pay and he gives me a receipt. He then takes the order off the pad he’s written it on, turns around, places it on the counter of the little window that opens into the kitchen.

He then walks to the small corridor, turns, heads toward the back and emerges a few seconds later in the kitchen. He walks to the window, now on the other side of it, picks up the order, reads it as if it contains some new information. He then proceeds to cook up my teriyaki chicken and noodles.

Several minutes later, I look up to see the man carry a Styrofoam container from the stove area in the kitchen over to the little window. He sets it there. He then does his previous routine in reverse, exiting the kitchen going forward and coming around to the counter area. He picks up the box as if it is a surprise, closes the lid, sticks it into a plastic bag and gives another of his little grunts.

I come over and thank him and take the bag. He actually says thank you in return.

I go out to the car and decide to eat it there rather than trying to eat and drive at the same time. Connor (who decides to share in my meal) and I dig in.

As we eat, I explain the chef/waiter’s procedure to Connor. We surmise that maybe playing two roles makes him less lonely. All I know is that while it’s not the best teriyaki I’ve ever had it’s pretty good. And more than anything else, I’m just grateful to find something on this day when food choices seemed about as plentiful as “R” words in Korean.

For a quick meal on a trip, it turns out to be just right. Even without the ice.

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Judging ourselves

by Steve Brock on March 7, 2013

Recently, in the course of a branding project, a client made what I believe to be a very profound comment:

“We judge ourselves by our intentions. We judge others by their actions.”

Read it again.

It’s so true and yet so easy to miss.

Many years ago, my father-in-law was in Italy. At a popular tourist site, a Japanese couple approaches him and using hand gestures, points to their camera, to my father-in-law and then to themselves. My father-in-law points to the camera, points to himself and then back to them. The Japanese couple nods enthusiastically. My father-in-law nods enthusiastically. He even bows to them. They bow back.

The Japanese couple then step over to be in front of the monument they want in their picture. But when they turn around, they are horrified to see my father-in-law casually walking away with their camera around his neck, acting as if he’s just received a wonderful new gift.

The Japanese couple chases him down and apologetically tries to explain in Japanese that they weren’t giving him the camera but simply asking him to take their picture. My father-in-law cannot understand their words, but after allowing for a moment of extreme awkwardness, he laughs and, in words they cannot understand but in a tone they do, explains that he was merely joking. He then takes their picture, returns their camera and both parties leave smiling because of the encounter.

That’s a fun example of how one party knew their own intentions and assumed the other party did as well. And in reality, the other party, my father-in-law, did understand the other’s intentions. He just wanted to point out playfully how we all make certain assumptions.

His example illustrates how in foreign cultures, people have even less of an ability to understand our internal intentions. All they can go on is our actions.

The same applies even at home. The difference is that once others get to know us well, they have a better sense of our values and intentions. Still, it’s a great quote and principle to remember anywhere since it explains why people respond to us differently than we think they will.

But let’s take it one step further: What if we turned it around?

What if we judged ourselves by our actions, not just on what we thought about doing? What if I said those encouraging words rather than just thinking them? Thanked the person with a small note or gift rather than assuming they knew my appreciation? Smiled and nodded in a conversation to let the other person know I was paying attention?

What if we judged others by what they intended? Can’t do that because you can’t read their minds? True. But maybe, it might cause us to go deeper with others, listen more closely to better understand them…and their intentions.

You don’t have to wait for a trip to try it. Just be aware of what you actually do. Take a week – or even one day – to really pay attention to your actions. See if what you do matches what you deep down believe.

Try it. I’ll do the same. Then let me know what happens. Not what you think might happen or what you’d like to have happen. What actually occurs when your actions match your deeper intentions.

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Inside jokes

by Steve Brock on December 1, 2011

Here you see the broader scene in which I witnessed the little hitched horse in Portland

The story of the troll in the men’s room in Vienna is a good example of one of those experiences that occur between traveling companions that last long beyond your trip. These shared experiences become shorthand or secret code between those that were there.

Often you try to explain the experience to others. In the best cases, your listeners will nod, maybe laugh appropriately and possibly get some sense of what happened and why it mattered to you. They become insiders to your story.

At other times, they will hear your words but stare dully as if listening to a lecture on horticultural policy in the EU and the implications on the European debt crisis. Conversely, they may look at you, eyebrows up almost to their widow’s peak and mouth agape as if you had just said that you were dating Kim Kardashian and that was a good thing.

In reality, it doesn’t matter.

Sometimes inside jokes – for that’s essentially what these are – apply only to you or those on the inside. Other times, even those on the outside can appreciate them even if they weren’t there and in a small way become insiders to your story.

Take the urban legend that led to Travelocity’s mascot, the traveling gnome. The way I heard the story years ago, a woman looks out her front window one morning and discovers that one her Snow White and the Seven Dwarves lawn ornaments is missing. I believe the victim was Grumpy, which only seems appropriate. She assumes vandals, neighborhood kids or a gardener with a grudge have taken the painted, flat, metal little guy and left her with only the happy dwarves.

But she’s wrong.

A year later – a full year, mind you – Grumpy is back in his regular spot in the lineup only now he has an envelope taped to his hand. Inside the envelope are photographs of Grumpy all over the place – in front of London Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum, etc. She never learns the identity of the dwarfnappers.

When I first heard the story, I pictured the scene from the perspective of the homeowner. But now I think about it from the vantage of those who packed Grumpy along with them and set him up for shots all over the world.

I suspect their little inside joke got better and better as they went along. I also suspect they still laugh about it today. I know I do, and I’m on the outside of it.

Public art? Inside joke? Enjoyable discovery? Yes.

So a few weeks ago when my wife and I took a long weekend trip down to Portland, OR, I had to laugh myself when I came across the scene in the photos. Here, on a busy commercial street was a little toy horse tied up to the old hitching post still embedded in the curb.

Did the perpetrator do it for his or her own sake? Did they do it alone or with friends? Were they one of the nearby shop owners who could peer out and see if anyone noticed their little horse? Or did someone do it and walk away never to know the surprise and delight this little scene would provide to a passerby like me?

I’ll likely never know.

I’m just glad that someone out there recognized the value of shared humor, even for a stranger like me that stands on the outside of their inside joke. I may not have instigated it, but I can still participate in my own way, make it part of my own story and for that moment, feel just a little bit like an insider.

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Traveling incompetently

by Steve Brock January 24, 2011

We all are incompetent in some area. Find out what happens when you embrace your incompetency – and thus your humanity – on a trip.

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