What Language Are You Speaking?

Today I left my appointment with a physical therapist and, since it was just after one o’clock, decided to drop by Panda Express. Call it fast food if you must—and it is, usually, fast—but they use fresh ingredients and you can taste the freshness.

There was a line. And it wasn’t fast today. Behind me, standing a little too close, two men carried on a conversation in a language that sounded vaguely Hispanic. (I say a little too close in the sense that we Americans like our personal space when we’re standing in line. But some cultures are comfortable standing closer, and I don’t believe in letting things like this bother me.)

Then one of the workers announced to those of us waiting: “We are out of to-go boxes and”—he named several of the most popular items on the menu. “I’m sorry, but our delivery didn’t arrive today.”

Several people peeled out of the line and left, but I wanted my Panda Express, dagnabbit, and another worker brought up a bunch of the little cardboard cartons you traditionally see used for Asian takeout, so we were in business. By “out of to-go boxes” they’d meant those awful Styrofoam boxes.

So I and the two gentlemen behind me fanned out in front of the buffet to see what was available, which was when I got a look at them. One of them had a full head and mustache of white hair and could have been mistaken for Omar Sharif. The other was younger, but probably not by much. They used English to speak to the restaurant worker and to commiserate with me, smiling, then turned to each other and had a conversation in …

“What language are you speaking?” I asked, putting my hand on the younger man’s arm* to politely interrupt. “I’ve traveled a little, but I’ve never heard this.” Oh! Those rolled Rs! This language was like music.

“Arabic,” he said, and they both smiled. I smiled. We were all smiling. The younger man said, “You should visit Jerusalem,” in the manner of passing on a well-kept secret. “It is beautiful.”

And that was it, just a few words, but it made me happy today.

* Later I wondered if, by touching him, I’d violated some social custom. But they are here in Tennessee, and I am a woman who touches people when she talks to them. Also, they didn’t react in any way other than to smile and keep the conversation going.

Not by appointment do we meet Delight
And Joy; they heed not our expectancy;
But round some corner in the streets of life
They, on a sudden, clasp us with a smile.
—Gerald Massey (1828–1907), The Bridegroom of Beauty

 

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