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Bon appétit

16/08/2016

The other day I saw a waitress at my usual bar eating her lunch. If I’d been sitting a bit closer I’d certainly have said smakelijk eten. And if I’d caught her eye – but that didn’t happen – I’d just as certainly have mouthed the same words; and she would have mouthed the words for ‘thank you’ back. That’s what you do in this country – otherwise Dutch people of all ages will think you’re what some of them still call ‘an unlicked bear’, i.e. uncultured.

The phrase smakelijk eten is as automatic as the standard phrases used in many languages when other people sneeze within earshot (bless you in English, à vos souhaits in French, Jesús in Spanish, Gesundheit in German and so on).

Every European language I know has an everyday phrase that you automatically use when you see other people about to eat or already eating. In Dutch smakelijk eten, in Spanish buen provecho, in Danish velbekomme, in Hungarian jó étvágyat, in Greek καλή όρεξη (kalí órexi – the second word is related to anorexia = no appetite), in Polish smacznego, in Croatian dobar tek, in Swiss German en guete (or en guete mitenand if you’re saying it to several people), and so on and so on.

The only exception I’m aware of (at least in Europe) is the language that, for good or ill, is becoming the medium of international communication: English.

I can already hear some readers protesting that English does have an equivalent phrase, indeed two: bon appétit, and enjoy your meal. But in both cases there’s a crucial difference.

Bon appétit is, quite obviously, borrowed from French; and the fact that English-speakers have felt the need to borrow from another language what in other countries is considered part of everyday conversation is surely telling. It always has special overtones: ‘this meal is so grand-looking that it warrants the use of French’, or else ‘this meal is so basic – or badly cooked! – that the use of French can only be an ironic put-down’. Some people who use the phrase – especially in the US – grossly mispronounce it as ‘bon (even ‘bone’) appe-TIT’, with an embarrassingly audible final ‘t’. In short, this isn’t something most English-speakers say as a matter of course.

French-speakers, in contrast, would consider it just as normal – and just as socially obligatory – to say bon appétit when sitting down to greasy bits of pizza at the local snack bar as they would at a daily or weekly family meal, or a presidential or royal banquet.

So then there’s the more English-sounding enjoy your meal, which is what more and more visitors to restaurants (including foreign tourists) will nowadays hear from the waiter or waitress when their meal is served – the lazier ones will reduce this to enjoy, then turn on their heels and rush off to the next table. A good deal of online ‘instant translation software’ now gives enjoy your meal as the correct English translation of the European phrases listed above – but it isn’t. The phrase is only used by restaurant staff – i.e. by people who are not taking part in the meal. Anyone sitting down to share a meal with others would be laughed to scorn if they uttered this already hackneyed piece of modern waiterese.

The point is that English-speakers don’t generally feel the need to – and, above all, are not brought up to – say anything at all on such occasions; and when they learn other languages (as few of them ever do) they have to remind themselves to use the local equivalent. Even now, after living in continental Europe for 41 years and Holland for 33, I occasionally forget. Yet I do remember having meals with other English-speakers who lived in French-speaking Geneva – and we all quite naturally wished each other bon appétit (sometimes in the local colloquial form bon ap), since we all spoke fluent French and were used to hearing the phrase literally hundreds of times a year.

I would also not be surprised to find that native speakers of the Celtic languages Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish (which are still spoken in the British Isles) have picked up the English habit of saying nothing. To be sure, online translation software does give equivalents for bon appétit in each of these languages; but I expect they’re hardly used in practice.

What makes me mention all this at such length is a short book I’m now re-reading, by the British historian Tony Judt (who sadly died of ALS soon after it was published). Ill fares the land is a long-needed and above all well-reasoned attack on the neoliberal free-market ethos that has systematically destroyed so much of value in Western society over the past 35 years. This ethos has been most firmly embraced in the United States and Britain – both English-speaking countries – whose governments Judt accuses of deliberately eroding the social bonds and sense of community on which the peaceful prosperity enjoyed above all in Western Europe from the 1950s onwards so crucially depended.

As I read Judt’s book I couldn’t help thinking how English-speakers in general attempt to manage without several features of social interaction that not only are common, but are considered essential, in much of continental Europe: kissing and shaking hands whenever you meet even people you know well; using a standard polite phrase whenever you hand someone something (change at a shop counter, a restaurant menu, the keys to your new house); and saying bon appétit (or its equivalent in various languages) whenever the occasion demands. Not only do English-speakers manage without all this, but they are even inclined to deride it – ‘just look at those Frogs kissing the whole time – even two men!’

So why would anyone make a point of uttering a standard phrase on seeing others about to eat, or already eating? Perhaps it’s a secular version of ‘grace’ at the beginning of meals in religious families: brief thanks to God (or nature, or perhaps the ‘nanny’ state….) for our good fortune in having enough food on our plates when so many others around the world must wonder where their next meal is coming from. And perhaps – like ‘bless you’ and its equivalents when people sneeze – it’s a brief sign to our fellows that, as human beings, we are fundamentally concerned with each other’s welfare. Since food is not always safe to eat, and may not ‘go down’ well, we wish each other a ‘good appetite’ – not only that the food will not make us ill, but that we will enjoy consuming it and that our general sense of well-being will thereby be enhanced (‘I may not know who you are, but we all eat, and we all know why it matters’).

In Greece (and perhaps other countries) they go a stage further: when you see people who have just finished eating, you can wish them καλή χώνεψη (‘kalí chónepsi’ – good digestion).

Greece was until very recently a poor and physically inhospitable country, with rugged terrain, seas that could erupt in sudden storms, natural hazards ranging from venomous snakes and feral dogs on country roads to earthquakes and plunging ravines (not to mention the scorching sun), and few public facilities to step in if things went wrong. Many people had to set off for Athens by ship or long-distance bus if their child got appendicitis or their grandfather had a heart attack, and just hope they’d make it to the hospital in time. Old women crossed themselves whenever they passed a church, and people wore blue charms to ward off the ever-lurking ‘evil eye’.

When I first travelled there in the 1980s and started to learn the language, I was soon struck by what seemed to me the intrusive curiosity of so many people. As I left my rented room for the day, my landlady or landlord would invariably ask Πού πας; (‘Pou pas?‘ – ‘Where are you going?’). As a Western European to whom privacy was at a premium, my instinctive reaction was ‘None of your damn business’. But, hearing the same question day after day, month after month, year after year, I began to realise something else was going on. In the days before mobile phones (or phones of any kind), and in a country where you could very soon find yourself in trouble and on your own, asking people where they were going was a simple but effective form of insurance and social security – of concern with each other’s welfare. Insisting on your privacy could mean serious injury or death.

And traditional Greek hospitality was predicated on the knowledge that strangers who passed your way (on foot or, with luck, a donkey) might have a day or more’s journey behind them, and might not know how long it would take them to find their next food, water or lodging when they moved on. So you shared what you had with them, knowing that any Greek worth his or her salt would do likewise – and perhaps save your life – by sharing all that with you if and when the time came. The Greek word for hospitality has always been φιλοξενία (filoxenía, ‘friendship to strangers’) – for in a harsh world you might always be a stranger, and might always depend on friendship.

Looking across the café terrace to the young Dutch waitress who had so often served me drinks with a smile and was now eating her lunch, I wanted to wish her well without making a big thing of it. In modern Dutch society, saying (or mouthing) smakelijk eten was the simple way to do it.

How I wish we English-speakers had the same linguistic – and social – resources.

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From → Languages, Politics

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