I thought that New York City was a world-class polyglot until I was engaged by the Canadian Labour Market and Productivity Centre in Ottawa to teach Japanese shipbuilding methods to labor leaders at Vancouver’s Labor Maritime Centre.
My personal yardstick with which I judge Manhattan Americana, is an event I witnessed when walking down Broadway after visiting Gibbs & Cox, Inc., a naval-architectural firm near Penn Station. Ahead I saw someone attempting to stop a pedestrian. Because he was being brushed off every time, I assumed that he was bumming for money. He seemed to be a bit disturbed because of the brush offs and since his back was to me as I approached, I was going to walk by just as the others had done. But he turned suddenly and in a very frustrated manner said, “Hey you! Do you speak English?”
He needed directions and couldn’t speak Spanish.
In Vancouver on 9 May 1989 I asked the front-desk clerk in the East Hastings Street Travelodge if there was an Italian restaurant nearby. He advised of two just three blocks away. The larger of the two, which he seemed to prefer, he said was actually Greek-Italian. The other, just across the street, he described as a small family-style Italian restaurant. I told him that with my heritage I was obliged to patronize the family-style Italian restaurant.
I was pleased with my decision; it was indeed small, family style, and decorated appropriately with murals of Vesuvius and other recognizable Italian landscapes. The distinctive aroma of the various foods and wines conveyed the message that this was authentic Italianna. The patrons seemed to be enjoying their meals, the dim lighting, and the soft background music.
When the sole waitress backed through the kitchen door while carrying a tray, I could see that she had black hair and was of middle age. Southern Italian I thought. When she turned, I discovered that she was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Chinese. When she presented the menu, I asked the question that I usually pose to blue-eyed skinny blonde waitresses in Italian restaurants, “What part of Italy are you from?”
Picking up on my sense of humor she replied, “I’m not from Italy, but the city I come from has an Italian name, Toronto.”
A minute after she disappeared into the kitchen a Chinese with a white mushroom-shaped hat peeked into the dining room as if to check out the newcomer. When she returned I learned that he was the cook, the owner, and her husband, and had twenty-three years experience in one of Toronto’s fabulous Italian restaurants.
The meal was great. I was not disappointed as when in a Cantonese restaurant in Mississippi where I could smell the collard greens being cooked in the chop suey.
Nor was I disappointed as when I ordered corn beef and cabbage in Washington, D.C. because it was a Saint Patrick’s Day special. A minute later I knew it would not be authentic when I heard from the nearby kitchen door, the Hispanic cook trying to teach the Vietnamese waitress how to sing Danny Boy.
That reminds me, the music I heard in the Sino-Italio Vancouver restaurant was Lara’s Theme, and the themes from Love Story, Exodus, Zorba the Greek, and Lawrence of Arabia. It was just about everything but Italian.
Copyright © 2006 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo