Just Eat the Damn Chicken

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Still in Seoul! Our visa was extended (much to our relief), so we have another thirty days in South Korea.

Just Eat the Damn Chicken

Once upon a time, before there was COVID-19, before our children grew up, before we sold our house and donated an obscene number of shoes to Goodwill, we used to go on Family Vacations.

There were, in our minds, two basic variations on the theme: a beach trip, where the goal is to relax and keep the children from either drowning or blinding each other with fistfuls of sand, or an educational trip, where the goal is to exhaust everyone with so much activity that we’re all screaming at each other by day three.

I have such fond memories of Family Vacations.

Anyway. One version that we managed to pull off a couple of times was the Extended Family Vacation. In the Rosen family, this is a cruise (which, until six months ago, I highly recommended as a good way to make lots of people happy, and a couple of people utterly miserable, all at once). Now, of course, cruise ships are basically floating Petri dishes of pestilence, so maybe don’t do that. I’d suggest a camping trip instead—that’s another good way to torment all your loved ones, while maintaining a healthy social distance AND getting poison ivy. If you’re extra lucky, one of your children will startle a skunk and it’ll spray your tent, and then you’ll never have to go camping again. It’s a win-win.

So one year, when our children were the mercurial, hormonal ages of roughly fourteen and eleven, we went on an Extended Family cruise in the Baltic Sea. It was great fun—I have lots of pictures of our children covering their faces and refusing to be photographed, and then one really special shot of the two of them, locked into the stocks at some museum that I can’t remember. Those were the days, when I could lock them up, together, and freeze the moment for all eternity.

Our cruise spent two nights in the port at St. Petersburg, Russia. Now, there are two things you need to know about me. First, I have a lifelong interest in Russian history—so much so that I seriously considered going into the Foreign Service when I was in college. I even took a few Russian language classes. But in 2008, when we went on that cruise, I had never been to Russia, so St. Petersburg was a bucket list destination for me. The other significant fact is that I’ve never really enjoyed group activities. I like being in charge, and I’m generally convinced of my own superiority as a tour guide.

So I made my little group of four jump through all the (expensive) hoops to get Russian visas, so that we could create our own destiny in the Venice of the North.

Oh—I forgot another significant fact: FOOD. I travel on my stomach. The whole point of travel, in my mind, is the food. So one of the things I was most excited about on that trip—the thing I did the most research about—was the food. Specifically, I was over-the-moon excited to try Georgian food, which I’ve been obsessed with since I first read about it in the early 90s. (We’ve since been to Georgia, where Georgian food actually comes from, of course, and I can confirm that Georgian food is indeed one of the great Wonders of the World.)

The year of the Baltic cruise, though, St. Petersburg was the closest we were going to get to Georgia, and I was determined to try Georgian food while we were there.

Now, you have to remember that we were much less experienced travelers in those days, plus Google maps wasn’t at all what it is today. I may have taken Russian in the previous century, but I could barely pick out a few Cyrillic letters. We were pretty much bumbling around in the dark, in an alien landscape.

But I had a lunch spot in mind, and I was not to be deterred, no matter how miserable and freaked out our children were by the creepy cab driver who kept trying to share his one bottle of Snapple with us.

Somehow, by some miracle that I can’t remember, we managed to find the Georgian restaurant. It was a tiny little place, with just a few tables and no explanations on the ‘English’ menu, but we bravely staked out a spot and settled in.

The only other guests were an older man in an expensive-looking suit, and a much younger woman who looked like—let me see, how can I phrase this diplomatically—Barbie. As a matter of fact, she looked so much like Barbie that I started singing, under my breath, that questionable late-90s bubblegum pop song, Come on Barbie, Let’s Go Party. It was the most perfect soundtrack for the moment, right down to the creepy Ken voice. My persistent, if somewhat cringe-worthy, tableside singing is one of two things our children vividly remember about that meal. The other is the food.

For those of you who’ve never gone out for a meal with me, be forewarned: I have a history of over-ordering, especially when I’m excited about trying new things. I’ve been known to sit down, realize I can’t read the menu, and order one of everything. I figure, that way I know we’ve had a well-rounded experience.

Georgians, it turns out, are known for their feasting approach to life. They like an abundance of food. I didn’t know what anything was, really, so I randomly pointed to a bunch of items, and we sat back and waited. When the food began to arrive, it was glorious.

Khachapuri, if you’ve never had it, is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Google it—and be prepared to drool, and crave it every day for the rest of your life. I would say just go ahead and book a flight to Tbilisi, but maybe wait till the pandemic calms down.

Anyway—we got khachapuri, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I can’t remember, which we happily polished off. When we were absolutely stuffed, someone cleared our plates, and we started thinking about paying, so that we could get on with the sightseeing and walk off some of the bread-and-cheese bloat. No one seemed in any rush to bring us a bill, so Lee went to the cash register to try and pay.

While he was standing there waiting, cash in hand, a server reset our table with more plates and cutlery. A tiny, almost imperceptible little alarm bell started tinkling way in the back of my mind. How odd, to reset the table before the customers have even stood up. I started making quiet hissing noises, trying to get Lee to come back to the table and make everything be normal (this is my system, when I don’t understand what’s going on).

Now, remember—this was before we started traveling so much, and before we had learned to just roll with awkwardness. We love restaurants—we’re definitely foodies—so we were comfortable with a wide range of experiences in the US. But honestly, at that point in our lives, we spent more time in the predictable comfort of Macaroni Grill than anywhere else. That was our paradigm for how things should work, and at that moment, we all wanted nothing more than to just leave. We were stuffed to the bursting point.

And then the waitress put a whole chicken on the table.

The children began to mutiny. Lee sat back down (clearly no one was going to take our money at that stage), shrugged, and said maybe we could just leave. It’s not necessary to eat everything, he pointed out.

I absolutely could not countenance the embarrassment of walking away from an entire chicken, which I had apparently ordered. What would these nice people think of us? When you don’t eat the food someone has prepared for you, aren’t you rejecting their labor? I know that in the US, eating in a restaurant is often just a way to get dinner, but sometimes it’s more than transactional. When that food is the symbol of a culture, a nation, a people, it seems unbearably rude to just leave it on the table, untouched, as if it means nothing.

I went back to hissing, this time much more loudly.

Just eat the damn chicken. Shut up and eat the chicken!

We powered through, picking miserably at the chicken, but bravely holding up our end of the social contract that says never go to another country and insult its most treasured customs.

Nowadays, so much is wrapped up, for me, in that one little sentence, Just eat the damn chicken. It serves as a reminder that it (whatever it is) isn’t always about me. I am a guest on this planet, and sometimes the most important thing I can do is stuff up my own discomfort, and show some respect to the people around me. I try.

Just eat the damn chicken.

Take care,

Lisa

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