The saddest aspect of the many sad aspects of xenophobia is that it’s essentially a plagiarized hatred—a copycat hatred borrowed from someone else, from something one has read or heard—and therefore a failure of the imagination. Xenophobia, after all, simplifies rather than complicates, by reducing individuals to types.
I haven’t suffered much from it—the reason being that I’m terrified of air travel and don’t often get far enough from home to be regarded as a suspicious foreigner. The relative isolation does, however, leave me less capable of persevering in those moments when I do experience garden-variety foreigner-hatred—still, I’m embarrassed to admit how easily I folded some years ago, one afternoon in Copenhagen.
I was traveling alone that day and hadn’t a word of Danish to get around, but I made my best effort, shopping along Stroget all morning with my phrasebook at the ready, stepping into a casual bistro around noon for lunch with an effusively polite Taler du engelsk?
The waiter made it crystal clear that he did speak English. He did this by stating, in bored English, “I’ll deal with you later.” Then he seated the Danish party who’d come into the restaurant behind me.
Not the most auspicious beginning. Maybe it’s a Danish thing—seat individual diners last. Or something. I might as well stick.
I waited. For a very long time. So long, in fact, that I began to read the menu. Which was in Danish. Oksekød, I’ll bet that’s good. And I’m sure the vildt kød, whatever it is, is dynamite here.
It wasn’t until the waiter strode past me and out through the front door, where he proceeded to smoke a cigarette while watching me levelly through the window, that I realized what was happening. He wasn’t just telling me to wait. He was telling me to get lost.
And then the xenophobia began doing its xenophobia thing: to help myself cope with having been marginalized, I began marginalizing him.
The food probably sucks, anyway. And it’s just knee-jerk snobbery—you’re a “stupid American” in his eyes. He’ll probably do an impression of you for his friends later tonight, employing a southern accent and moseying around the apartment with his index fingers raised like six-guns, saying Tail-er doo engulsk? Tail-er doo engulsk?
The waiter’s position on the matter was, in many ways, the understandable one—after all, he’d taken the time to learn my language, while I hadn’t taken the time to learn his. Yet my only true crime was in having decided that his home was so fascinating a place that I had to visit it.
Now, the motivational speakers among us suggest that in such moments what you must do is this: you must climb back on the horse that threw you, you must master the moment before it masters you, etc. & etc. Move to the next restaurant down the street and try again.
That’s exactly what I didn’t do. Because I was feeling pissed off. Because I was feeling alienated and scared and marginalized and hungry. You don’t want me to eat your food? Fine, I won’t eat your food. So what did I do? I did the worst possible thing, something even worse than skipping a meal in a European capital. Reader: I went to McDonald’s.
What kills me is that it was a long walk, getting there—and one thing Danes like to do is eat outdoors, in the fresh air, at round tables graced with tiny espresso cups and tall glasses of wheat-colored beer. Which means that during that long walk to eat corporate American food, I passed table after table of Danes eating wonderful Smørrebrød—I knew it was wonderful because I’d eaten plenty of it myself on that trip, simple fried fish laid over a slice of heavy, dark rye bread, served with nothing but a wedge of lemon to squeeze over the top and some butter to brighten the bread, the fish so fresh you knew it had been swimming somewhere off the coast yesterday. I could have had that. Instead I pushed through the glass doors of the golden arches, there to confront the decidedly less inviting scent of boiling grease.
Appropriately enough, while I have vivid memories of the other wonderful meals I ate on that vacation—a hangar steak I carved up at midday beside the sparkling black water of the Nyhavn canals; a venison chop I devoured in a barn that stood in the shade of a castle—I have no memory whatsoever of what I ate that afternoon at McDonald’s.
What I am left with, instead, is not the memory of a meal, but an impression of a junk-type of meal—the burger, the fries. I could have had a plate of Smørrebrød while sitting outside with an excellent beer in a handsome square. Instead I ate corporate swill from a plastic tray. It’s my own fault. This is what failures of the imagination are, both at the table and elsewhere: crimes committed against experience.
¼ cup cornmeal
¼ cup panko or other bread crumbs
½ pound sole fillets
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 slices dark rye bread
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
2 wedges of lemon
1. Preheat the broiler. Place the egg on a plate and stir with a fork. On another large plate, combine the flour, cornmeal and panko. Dredge the sole in the egg, then the flour mixture until well coated. Set aside. Lightly toast the bread slices under the broiler, then divide onto two plates.
2. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When the oil shimmers, gently slide in the breaded fillets and fry, without moving, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip and brown for 3 more minutes.
3. Spread 1 tablespoon butter on each slice of toasted bread, then top the bread with a piece of breaded fish. Serve immediately, with a wedge of lemon alongside.
Yield: 2 servings.