Cultural Ambassadors

I’m thinking of a stock character; American in a boring stereotypical sense. Great grandparents came over from Europe and got jobs with some alphabet soup organization and never looked back. He’s gonna get his 23andme results back and pretend he knows Latvia from Serbia from Montenegro. France and Norway he can locate and he’s told he’s part that, so he puts the best shine on it, claims he’s a Viking/Celt and goes on with his life.

He ran through his small town’s entertainment offerings years ago. They aren’t bad, but he tried Vietnamese food at a sales convention in Dallas and loved it. There’s a place in his hometown that’s not bad, and even owned by first-generation Vietnamese, but they know their audience would freak at a pineapple anchovy sauce and keep it simple and safe. That’s fine. He gets it and the Phans are lovely people. In fact, it was in conversation with the Phans that he found his long-weekend destination.

Mr. Phan has a buddy in a nearby larger town, maybe a two-hour drive, and that guy runs a visa-to-table kitchen called Maison de Saigon. Duck legs with bamboo, things wrapped in lotus leaves, lemongrass beef stew, clay pot pork with young coconut sauce, pig knuckle soup. My American doesn’t know why young coconut and not old or middle aged. He doesn’t care. It’s delicious and the staff loves him because he always gets a couple of bahn mi to take home for later and they always throw in something off-menu for him to take to the Phans.

It’s a great thing. My guy starts getting into Vietnamese food. He orders a few cookbooks from Amazon and tries a few things at home. He’s not bad. Rather, he’s not as bad as he thought he would be. He’s interested enough to peel back a few layers on the tradition. The Chinese influences are not hard to pick out. He’s less confident as to which are Laotian and which Cambodian. French additions are pretty easy to spot and, he’s surprised to find, not at all as fussy or delicate as he thought. It’s good peasant cooking. He decides, should it ever come up, that he’s French/Viking.

Life is good. He and his wife hit the big city once every month or so for dinner at the Vietnamese spot, a night on the town, lunch somewhere new, and then an early dinner back at the Vietnamese spot and drive home with a cooler full of bahn mi and a Tupperware full of something for the Phans.

There’s one problem. They always get the same waitress at Maison. Alice.

It’s the damnedest thing because every employee, front of house, is dressed of a set. There’s no uniform, but dark pants and a button up with a pocketed apron seem to be what’s agreed upon.

No one told Alice.

She always, always, wears a white "I Love New York" t-shirt, but with a big red heart where the "Love" is supposed to be, under an acid-washed jean jacket she wears even when she’s got the patio station in July. She’s a sweet girl and doing really well in nursing school but the high fives are awkward and nobody needs to know that much about Michael Jackson and Taylor Swift.

She somehow pushes "Oh, m’god!" out of her mouth without losing her gum every time they come in and then there are hugs and breathless updates about her boyfriend’s band. It’s sweet, but my couple is lost to their place in the relationship. They hug know her. Does that mean they can give "You haven’t been dating him long enough for that tattoo" advice?

Last year Alice started adding "flair" to her jacket. It’s slapdash. You can wear a Yankees or a Red Sox button. Not both. Her NRA and "Act Local" pins aren’t in quite as much opposition, but there’s dissonance. There are others, but they’re obscured by the red bandanna she wears like a floofy pocket handkerchief instead of tucked into her pert, his wife teases him for pretending not to notice, butt pocket.

A few months ago, she told them not to look at the dessert menu. She had something special coming out. It was apple pie with a coriander sprig on top. They had to thank her. Now it’s every time.

They love Alice, but part of why they come is to pretend they’re somewhere else. They want to be in a roadside café with Piaggios and Suzukis weaving through pedestrians and ignoring white gloved and helmeted policemen orchestrating seemingly deaf traffic on the roads in front of them. They want a little linguistic confusion with the waiter to add mystery ("I think I he said there’s shrimp in it.") They don’t want to close their eyes and be in the idealized Asia they culled from cookbook images and Discovery documentaries. They almost get there, but then Alice brings her Jersey cartoon, or what, having never been, they think a Jersey cartoon would look like, into frame.

How many Dubliners want to see a different college team play?

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