I’m paid to be the voice of dozens of ESL (English As A Second Language) programs for other countries, and I even narrate English text books for a big educational company here in New York City. You could say I’m a good speaker, but I really pride myself on being a good communicator. These last two months I spent a lot of time with a new gentleman friend visiting the US from Paris. English is not his first language, not even his second language, but I learned so much from him about being heard, choosing my words, and saying what I mean.
When I go to foreign countries I am lazy, I speak English and expect to be understood for the most part. I figure restaurants and boutiques have more experience trying to understand Americans than I have trying to speak their languages. It’s a terrible way to travel, I know. My friend, who lives his life speaking French, studied English as a boy growing up in Paris and has mastered the language very well. But it is his dream to move to America and speak effortless English like all of us. In our time together I was asked to correct him if he mispronounced or misused a word or phrase. If I said a sentence he didn’t understand, I was asked to repeat the same thing, without changing a word, and to slow it down for him. And if he was learning a new word, I was asked to spell it for him. I loved these word games!
Here’s my biggest observation: most of the words that come out of my mouth are crap. I have my own shorthand language as well as nicknames and odd little phrases for many things. I also say the same thing about three different ways in one sentence. It was often impossible to repeat things because I would mindlessly ramble, not being mindful of what I’d actually said in the first place. I began speaking more efficiently, choosing words that would give the most value to my meaning. I learned to slow down. I learned to look him in the eyes when I spoke so he could see the intended emotion as well as hear it in my voice.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned in communicating with my foreign companion is that it isn’t only about what you are saying, it’s about listening and giving undivided attention to the other person, to receive what they are trying to share. My friend so desperately wanted to be understood. It became a pleasure to realize we were in no hurry, that we had all the time in the world as long as we ended up on the same page. We had so much fun teaching each other little phrases in our own languages. Of course our time together was not without its misunderstandings…
Soon after we met I was told I was ‘agreeable.’ Now forget what that word looks like. Say it to yourself as ah-grlay-ah-bluh. Put the R in the back of your throat and flip it with the L sound in that second syllable. Say it with your best French accent. It sounds nothing like uh-gree-uh-bul does it? I couldn’t figure out what he was saying and he couldn’t figure out how to give its meaning. Weeks in, I kept saying the word over and over and realized he was saying agreeable. I spelled it for him, he said, yes, that was the word he was saying. I then pouted and said, “So basically you’re saying that I’m just okay. You don’t mind spending time with me. I’m not the worst, but just all right.” (I was being a bit of a brat.) He insisted he was paying me a compliment. I’d hurt his feelings, it was clear, but each day he would look for another way to find the meaning. Apparently, from what I’ve read, it truly is a hard word to translate.
How often do we feel unheard or misinterpreted and walk away muttering to ourselves, “Oh forget it!” This happens countless times each day in little and big ways. I do it with my parents on the phone, (sorry Mama!) talking to cab drivers, trying to get a waiter’s attention. It’s embarrassing behavior, I know. And my sweet man never once walked away. On our last day together before he returned home to Paris, I told him that our time together was precious. His eyes got really big and he slowly said, “Lisa, that is what I’ve been saying to you all this time. Agréable in French means a lot of things, pleasant or nice, but if it is said by a special someone to another special someone, it can mean precious too. You are precious to me.” I was so caught up in being right and correcting his word usage, I stopped hearing or seeing the true meaning intended! Sigh.
We saw American movies in the theatre, watched American television, and went to many American restaurants together. We also went to French patisseries and ate at French bistros. My dear foreigner is a music producer and I was invited to accompany him to a concert of one of his French artists. I was charmed. I took him to a friend’s cabaret celebrating the song stylings of the American composer Irving Berlin. He was enchanted. It didn't matter the language spoken or understood; food, art, and entertainment transcended the linguistics. It was like we spoke the same language when we shared those experiences.
My favorite French phrase I learned? 'Tu me manques.' That’s what they say instead of ‘I miss you.’ And the translation? ‘You are missing from me.’ Le sigh. Love transcends language as well.
One of the many things I cooked for my gentleman friend was a Tomato Cheddar Pie. It’s so American and the perfect summer dish. One of my bests from college would make a Vidalia Onion Pie that I actually have dreams about. This Tomato Cheddar Pie comes close in richness and Southern charm. Dig a store bought pie crust out of the freezer, gather up some late summer tomatoes, grate some cheese and you've got a pie! Make it for someone you love! And call your Mom!
Tomato Cheddar Pie
Inspired by Sam Worley at Epicurious
- 3 large tomatoes (about 2 pounds), sliced 1/4" thick
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup finely chopped Vidalia onion (about 1/2 medium onion)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce (I love Cholula!)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 store bought ready made pie crust (or homemade if that's your thing!)
- 3 slices white bread, pulsed in a food processor to form fresh crumbs (I left mine chunky)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Line a rimmed baking sheet with several layers of paper towels. Arrange tomato slices on prepared sheet, sprinkle with 1/4 tsp. salt, and cover with more paper towels. Let drain at least 30 minutes. (confession, I pinked out on this step and had a slightly soggier pie than I wanted. Do it!)
- Preheat to 350°F. Line crust with parchment paper or foil and fill bottom with baking beans or weights. Bake crust, rotating halfway through, 10 minutes. Remove weights, pierce bottom of crust all over with a fork, and bake again until very light brown and dry, about 5 minutes more.
- Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium. Add onion and butter, and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened and just starting to brown, 5–8 minutes. Let cool.
- Combine cheese, mayonnaise, hot sauce, onion mixture, pepper and salt in a medium bowl. Blot tomatoes with fresh paper towels to remove as much remaining moisture as possible. Arrange tomato slices in pie shell and top with filling; smooth.
- In the empty skillet, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter, add crumbs stirring to coat. Let them toast for a minute. sprinkle on top of pie like a crumble topping.
- Bake pie, rotating halfway through, until golden brown, 40–45 minutes. Let cool to room temperature before slicing.