Thursday, December 29, 2005

How I learnt to "have a good appetite" and love food on planes

Teddy de Burca jnr.
has a good appetite, so maybe that’s why he’ll eat anything, even airplane food

As I strolled outside the office, my colleague must have thought I was heading for lunch, even though it was only 10am.
“Have a good appetite,” he said cheerily, walking in the door.

I didn’t bother pointing out in English we don’t say that, we might say, “enjoy your meal” but as we weren’t even in a restaurant, we would be more likely to say, “where are you going for lunch?” As for pre-meal encouragement, face to face with your food, we all have our own way of egging each on. I might say, “dig in”, my mother would say, “There’s plenty more of everything.”

My hairyback cousins from the backwaters of county Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, considering dinnertime to be a form of combat, often used to say “good luck” before demolishing the table and asking for seconds.

Anyway, presuming my colleague might be the victim of Franglaise, translating “bon appetit” into English, I forgot all about it, until an hour later when I did go for lunch and an elderly kind-hearted smart looking man beside me smiled as I picked out my chopsticks. “Have a good appetite,” he said, almost whispering, as though the subtle joys of English were just between the two of us.

But how odd, I thought, the same mistake within an hour. Perhaps, I speculated, it was the Vietnamese being translated into English. But Vietnamese people say “Chuc an ngon”, which is more like, wishing you a delicious meal, or else they would “Moi anh/ chi (invite you)”, on more of a par with the Dutch “alsjeblieft” or French “s’il vous plait”, which is why sometimes Vietnamese, French or Dutch, people might offer you food, or an ashtray, or even money, and say “please”.

Then later that week I happened to be on a domestic flight from Hanoi to Nha Trang and there I discovered what I believe to be the culprit – a small cardboard box containing my inflight meal, a flimsy, tasteless sandwich, with a bit of ham, sticky cheese and a single shred of lettuce and a mouthful of water on the side. Written across the box in large easy-to-read-font is – “Have a good appetite”.

Now, considering there are thousands of foreigners travelling in the country everyday, not to mention teachers, editors and trainers abound, why didn’t the company in charge of printing the boxes ask someone if that was the correct English expression? The boxes will presumably stay for a while, I doubt anyone will crack out the red pen and start crossing all the ‘appetites’ off and replacing it with ‘meal’, but that means non-accomplished English speakers, of which there are many, travelling on the short domestic flights in Vietnam would be potentially picking this incorrect expression up along the way. Not the end of the world I admit, but still, not the greatest advert either.

Trying to forget about it, with a rumble in my stomach, I got on with the basics of life, eating and drinking that is. I opened up the wee box and plucked out the soggy bread and wolfed it down before washing it away with the mouthful of water, and when I closed the box after my “mot-hai-ba” banquet it suddenly hit me: Airplane food, as we all know, isn’t the Mae West, so if you don’t have a good appetite, more than likely, you won’t eat it at all. So perhaps “Have a good appetite” is just another way of saying “Good luck”.

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