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Language Fail: You Butter Believe It

Updated: 6 days ago

Here, two ways not to say butter in a foreign country

Stock photo of a silver knife spreading butter on to a white slice of bread

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I Need Butter for my Bagel

Waking up in the Ritz in Santiago, Chile, I felt at this point in my travels like I'd just won the lottery. Of course, Dad funded the stay on well earned points, but his gain was mine too. I had never stayed at anything like it before, and remember feeling terrible when I put the 'do not disturb sign' on the door. Dad had wanted to see what kind of goodies they'd leave during turn down service. Having spent a few nights at the St. Regis in Rome (on my own points nearly 10 years later), I found that the swag was REALLY good at these places. We got fabric tote bags, shoe shine service, basil face mist, lipstick tube chapstick, and other really nice little treats. It was a major bummer that we'll never know what the Chilean Ritz doles out, but that's not relevant here anyway.

After waking up and walking out to the adjacent Starbucks for breakfast, I ordered a bagel and my typical "cafe americano" order. Cafe Americano is the coffee that I order worldwide for it's strong espresso base and watered down finish (perfect for Americans used to giant mugs of moe every day). The only thing I was missing was some butter for my bagel. With great confidence, after years of traveling to Italy and Europe I asked for burro for my bagel. As you'll learn in the story below, burro is the Italian word for butter. But in Spanish speaking cultures, burro is well, a burro. A donkey. As britannica defines: donkey, (Equus asinus), also called burro, domestic ass belonging to the horse family. So of course in my stately swagger having just rolled out of the most expensive bed sheets I'd ever slumbered in, I asked the barista kindly for some ass. I languished, yelling it louder and louder, "Burro! Burro!" The man simply had no idea what I wanted, and grew seemingly more and more annoyed and offended that I kept calling him an ass. Was I out of line? Probably, but I did eventually get the mantequilla I was looking for.

Donkey Spit

In my family, our early journeys to Italy were chock full of language disasters and loads of laughs to follow. Google translate wasn't an option back in the '90s, nor was DuoLingo or any some such interweb tool. We relied on pocket translation tools and our limited knowledge of menus from the Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill. We knew the basics - all the pastas, of course - fettuccine, linguine, the American standards. We understood the sauces from red to white, wine and butter based, and even touted ourselves as educated for knowing dishes like chicken marsala. We were not skilled travelers in this time, we were still learning. Spicy and meaty Bucatini Amatriciana was nowhere near our radar, or even the simplest of Roman favorites, the cacio e pepe, was not in our recipe book either. So, color us surprised, as we perused the menu of yet another trattoria somewhere in tourist trapped Italy, and we saw it - donkey spit. What?! Eight year old me began to giggle with curiosity - these weird Italians, is this really something they eat? The family, no doubt well in to their post antipasti second or third vino della casa, erupted in to laughter. The menu read, "burro e salvia", to which we expected must of course be a literal translation to donkey saliva, or donkey spit. Even if we knew better, it was still a fun family moment where we all go to share a laugh. Burro e salvia is a common and delicious preparation for ravioli, tortellini or other stuffed pastas. By its translation, it is a butter and sage sauce, finished with fresh aged Parmesan-Reggiano. Oops.

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