The American | In Italia: Living: Lost in Translation – A Barbarian for Dinner

Below you will find a link to my column Lost in Translation and my latest article, A Barbarian for Dinner: showcasing my frustration at the differences between the “American” style of table etiquette and the ever difficult, “Continental” style.

By Jennifer Allison
Published: 2014-09-13
The dinner party included me (the American), a lovely German woman, a French couple and two Portuguese men, one of them the host of the soirée. We sat beneath colored lights on a small patio, the warm Lisbon air gradually inviting mosquitoes that warned us to move inside.

Wine glasses were filled and refilled while conversation flowed seamlessly from one subject to the next. As with most European discussions, “the crisis” topped the agenda, along with recent French political upheaval (which the French couple felt compelled to explain, futilely I might add.) I gladly joined in, answering questions about Obama, the United States, and my experiences as a veteran American traveler.

Until the food came.

It was then, while looking longingly at my fresh grilled sea bass, roasted potatoes and sautéed Romanesco broccoli, that I was forced to remove myself from the conversation. I had bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

As the only American at a table full of Europeans, I was determined to adjust my American style of table etiquette to fit the habits of my newly acquired continental friends. In fact, I’d been practicing making the etiquette break for months.

And it was damn hard.

Suddenly, I had to eat with my left hand, which I’ve always insisted exists only for show (and to lean on from time to time).

Differences in dining etiquette never had much of an impact on me until I briefly dated a German man. I noticed he’d leave his hand on the table as we ate and wondered to myself how a well-educated adult could have such poor table manners. It wasn’t that important and who was I to play teacher?

He was much more opinionated on the subject. He asked me if my parents had ever taken me to nice restaurants while I was growing up. “Of course they did,” I replied. “It was very important to them that their children learn manners.”

“Then why do you eat the way you do? Why do you put your hands on your lap? In Germany, we always say that the Americans do that because they are hiding a gun.”

I was stunned. I wished I did have a gun, or nearly.

“You’re the barbarian,” I snapped back. “Your hands are on the table so we can see you won’t stab us with your knife.”

Later, we had a good laugh over childhood training. I explained how I was constantly reminded to get my hands off of the table; to rest my left hand (I’m right handed) gently on my lap, which held my napkin, and to move my fork from my left to right hand while cutting my meat or buttering my bread. If my left hand accidentally came to rest on the table, my mother was ready: “We are not barbarians, get your hands off the table.”

My polite and conscientious parents made sure their children could go anywhere from high-class restaurants to Broadway musicals. They prided themselves in our manners and that we could fit into any situation. Or should I say fit in into any American situation.

Their own manners came from parents who had learned them from their parents, and so on, and my mother’s quip about barbarians wasn’t a joke. The American style was indeed developed to break free of the ravenous tendencies of centuries past.

Yet here I was in Europe, a place I know well, feeling like a bit of a barbarian, picking at the fish while struggling to hold the fork in my left hand. How I longed to use my right hand, and for a moment I slipped up. I switched hands and let my knife rest in my left while my wonderfully dexterous right hand did what it’s done with great skill for 42 years — eat!

Then came another, even worse slip up. After resting my utensils on my plate to sip wine, I absently-mindedly picked up my fork with my right hand and rested my left hand on my lap. Had anyone noticed? Would they duck and cover in case I went on a shooting rampage with my hidden weapon as we weaponized Americans do while eating our dinner? But nobody noticed and I recovered quickly. I managed not only to hide my gun (again), but also slip myself back into the conversation.

One thing about “us” barbarians: we’re quick, and extremely clever.

The American | In Italia: Living: Lost in Translation: The Deep End, A Prose Poem

Below you will find a link to my column Lost in Translation and my most recent piece, “The Deep End” which is not a typical article, but more-so a prose poem. Anyone who knows me, knows that poetry is near and dear to my heart. Although the magazine does not typically publish poems, this particular prose was allowed – this one time.
Couple Holding Hands Underwater

By Jennifer Allison
Published: 2014-07-10
Standing by the side of the pool I felt the raindrops on my shoulders. Beyond the palm trees and jagged rocks, the Pacific Ocean remained still. It was far too early in the morning for anyone to be out and about. Eyes open, I dove into the warm saltwater pool, heading straight for the bottom.

As a child, my swimming teacher lectured me on the need to learn to swim on the surface, not just under water. I tried in earnest, but as soon as I’d let out my breath, my small body would sink. I’m dense. The deep end became my home. Sometimes I’d let my belly rest on the bottom. Floating was and remains difficult. To stay buoyant, I have to arch my back to let my chest expand. My legs often dangle beneath me.

I swam along the bottom of the pool, kicking off it for propulsion, imagining myself as a dolphin torpedoing upward. I came to rest on the surface, my upper body floating, my hair extending half the length of my arms, which remained spread. As I tried to float, my back arched and my legs dangling as always, I thought about a simple but significant question my younger son had asked me a few days before.

“Do you think you’ll ever marry again, Mom?”

Everyone I know, or so it seems, is divorcing and remarrying, sometimes doing both within months. My son is sensitive. When it comes to me, he doesn’t like not being in the know.

I wanted to remarry, I had told him honestly. It just wasn’t that easy. Dates were easy. Romance was easy. But finding someone who complimented me and I them, well, that was harder.

As I considered this, I let myself sink to the bottom again. There, peering up through the water at the sunrise above, the rain gone, I held my breath as long as I could before again shooting back to the surface, all the while pondering my own marriage, my past relationships, and the deep end below me.

I’ve had only a handful of significant relationships in my life — four to be precise. Metaphorically, I started comparing them to my lifetime of swimming.

For years I was married to a man who was an All-American in every sense. We spent almost all our time with our heads jointly above water, feet firmly planted on the ground, never letting anything become too uncomfortable or run too deep. We remain good friends who care for each other. Even now, as co-parents, we keep our heads well above the surface.

I also thought about the German man I became involved with, and loved, for four months. He and I had stood on the different sides of the pool, smiled at each other, and decided to dive in head first, destination deep end. But while I continued exploring the pool’s far ends, he lost his breath. Gasping for air, he retreated to the shallow side where his friends awaited and comfort was assured. I knew he still longed for the deep. I also knew he didn’t have the lung capacity to truly explore it. I climbed out the opposite end of the pool.

My relationship with the Canadian was all in fun. He didn’t swim but appreciated that I did. During the week I’d dive as deep as I could, resurfacing on weekends, when he’d have a glass of Dom Perignon and vacation plans waiting. After exactly a year I realized I no longer wanted to step out of the water. He took his cocktail party elsewhere and, still poolside, is happy as a clam.

The Italian I met while navigating the deepest parts of the pool. He took my hand and for the first time in my life I felt like I’d found someone who swam like me. We held our breath for three years, exploring, discussing, debating and loving. But whenever we had to leave the water to gather food, our hands apart for a while to cope with life on land, we’d fall apart. Neither of us knew how to survive together outside the deep end of the pool. One day we stepped out of the water together, both frustrated that we had to, and couldn’t find our way back.

My watery metaphor was suddenly interrupted by outside conversation. A man jumped into the pool and water sloshed over my face. I did what I always do. I let my breath out, sank, retreated to the deep end, and swam along the bottom. Until I found the stairs and left the water behind.

The American | In Italia: Living: Lost in Translation: No Strings Attached

Below you will find a link to my column Lost in Translation and my most recent article, “No Strings Attached”

Photo curtsey of WikiHow
Photo courtesy of WikiHow
By Jennifer Allison
Published: 2014-06-22
After a long and particularly dramatic relationship, followed by an equally long and ugly break-up some years later, I was mentally kaput. When friends asked if I would begin to date again, I scoffed. What I really want, I lamented, is sex and companionship with no strings attached. What was so wrong with that?

“You mean you want a booty call?” one of them asked.

“No, no, just someone to have sex with, date and nothing else. No futures planned, no expectations to crush and no relationship crud,” I explained.

Was that so hard?

Months later along came Jad. Aesthetically beautiful in every way, he was by far the best-looking man I’ve ever dated. A man virtually everyone, men and women alike, couldn’t help but take notice of. He wasn’t a tall man or a boisterous man or in any way odd. On the contrary, he was of average height, bald, soft-spoken with a thick Lebanese accent and aside from the brown flat cap he often wore, donned himself in mostly black. His lips were full, his skin was fair and his athletic body was that of a practiced yogi. Although it wasn’t his height or his build or his accent that had me entranced. It was the way he moved. The man oozed sexuality from every pore of his being without even trying. When he approached me, asking me out to dinner, I looked over my shoulder thinking the invitation was meant for someone else. His piercing brown eyes made sure I knew it was directed at me.

Mind you, I had long since forgotten my off-the-cuff comment about finding sex and companionship with no strings attached.

He was early to the restaurant whereas I, in typical fashion, arrived 10 minutes late, apologizing. He smiled, hugged me and told me it was really no problem at all. It was clear we liked each other. He was attentive, interesting, never let his eyes wander, and quite honestly one of the best dates I’d been on in years. Hours later we were still asking questions and discovering details of each other. He mentioned he had two children with different mothers, and remained friends with both of them. When I asked him why the relationships had fallen apart, he told me the bonds had never been tight enough to split. “I don’t believe in marriage or monogamy but I wanted to be a father,” he told me. Both were “a trap which ruins perfectly good relationships and love.”


Oddly, his candor appealed to me. So many men I’d met told me what I wanted to hear but their actions were completely contrary. I’d never been with a man solely for the purposes of simple dating and sex with no real future. There was always an underlying question of life-long compatibility and relationship status. Nothing was simple.

Simplicity was all Jad would ever offer me or any other woman. He didn’t beat around the bush when it came to his interest in me, outlining what he found attractive both physically and mentally. He explained that he rarely had both a physical and mental attraction to women, though it didn’t prevent him from sleeping with one should they only fill physical criteria. When he asked me to go wine tasting with him the next weekend, I agreed without a blink.

Jad and I would embark on a romance that involved not one string and revolved mainly around sex.

Having nothing to lose by being myself, I was nothing less. I didn’t care if he didn’t like my political opinions or my lifestyle or even my chipped nail polish for that matter. If I wanted to be sullen and serious, I was; likewise, if I wanted to be silly and goofy, I was. I didn’t try to impress him nor he I. We were 100 percent true to who we were.

I never worried about other woman because I knew the worrying would’ve been futile. At the same time, I never saw him text, email or even speak on the phone with another woman while with me. And we were with each other quite a bit. Sure, I knew there were other women, probably many of them, but it just didn’t seem to matter to me.

The relationship wasn’t typical of most sexually based ones, either. He never called late at night asking me to come over. On the contrary, though lots of sex was involved each time we saw each other, we also behaved as a couple. We went out to dinner, movies, long walks, had a few weekend getaways, and practiced yoga together either at studios or at his house. He’d cook traditional Lebanese food for me and we’d often have heated debates on environmental or educational topics, and when the debates ended, we’d go to bed for sex.

But we never cuddled. Not after sex, not while watching movies, and even though we held hands when walking in public, it was never a strong hold. To hold a hand tightly involves a string.

He began asking me to stay longer. He liked having me at his house when he and I were both camped over our computers. We’d work a few hours, stop for sex and food, work a few more hours, stop for sex and a walk, and then go back to our work. Our weekends got progressively longer. Though still no cuddling.

Until the day he asked me to come snuggle with him. He must’ve seen my apprehension mixed with surprise because he patted his chest and said, “C’mon, come lay here.” So I did. We ended up snuggling for more than two hours, talking about philosophy, children and life in general. As I got up to go to the bathroom, he touched my hand and told me that I was an anomaly. I kissed him, got up from his bed, and never returned.

The next day he messaged me to say that his daughter would be with her mother all week and asked me to come stay with him for four days. I told him I couldn’t, that I had my boys that week, though maybe we could just meet for dinner somewhere. Suddenly, we had a string, a conflict, and I knew we both felt it. And that wasn’t what we had agreed upon. So he said, “Okay” and I responded, “Okay,” and we never spoke again. It was all that simple.

I’m not so sure I could ever have that kind of relationship again. Sex without loving emotions and devotion can quickly grow stale. But I’m glad I was able, at least for once in my life, to feel what it was like to be completely free from all the questions and anxiety that being in love brings.

The American: In Italia

Below you will find the link to my bi-monthly column, Lost in Translation and my latest article, “Virtual Flowers”

By Jennifer Allison
Published: 2014-04-07
It was a busy Friday night for me. Like most Friday nights I had a date. My date included the perfect martini I had just made, a nice soft couch, my trusty dog, Cella, and a TV marathon of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. My teenage sons tell me I need to get out. But I was getting out — just with Hercule, who I happen to adore. If Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael were around on Fridays, I’d date him too.

As soon as I took my first sip I heard my phone chirp from the kitchen. I figured it was one of my girlfriends giving a last minute text to meet at the wine bar across the street. Instead, a number I didn’t recognize showed on my screen. I knew the area code, but the number wasn’t a contact of mine. Or hadn’t been for many months.

“Hi, I’m visiting my folks and they send their regards. You really made an impression on them.”

The text was from an old boyfriend; a man I dated for nearly a year. I realize that a year sounds like a long time, but in truth, we only saw each other on weekends or vacations and although we enjoyed our time together it was all in fun; emotions not deep enough or even shared, personalities opposite, and so in the most adult of ways, we parted. This may come off as ridiculous, but I was proud of that break-up. We were both so mature and calm about it. In fact, we were mature and calm for the entire relationship; highly unlike me, given my typical idealist personality full of overflowing emotions.

But this was a break-up I could write about in a book I’d call, “How To Break Up With Class.” It was face to face, no pettiness, no, “I’ll get my things in the morning, you ass!” while storming out of the house (It helped we didn’t keep personal items at each other’s homes.) Phone numbers and emails were deleted, at least on my end, and even photos electronically trashed in a blink. I believe in clean breaks. I’m not one to “friend” ex-partners or keep mementos. It doesn’t work for me. It seems too superficial and contrived.

In truth, I’ve always respected him for how it ended. Though we met online, he kept his texting and emailing to a minimum which is rare these days, even for men in their 50s. During our first few dates he would make plans for the next date face to face. He’d call (not every night mind you) and we’d text only for a quick hello or to touch base throughout the day. It was all, so, well… mature. Before him I had almost given up on the notion that men would call instead of hiding behind a text (i.e. technology), as my teenage boys tend to do.

His text continued: “I don’t know how to tell you how much you and our relationship meant to me.”

And there it was, my virtual bouquet of flowers — delivered in on an iPhone instead of the local florist.

The problem with women my age (early 40s) is that we remember the time we’d actually answer the door to the pimply-faced high school boy holding a delivery for us. Sometimes they carried roses and other times our favorite tulips. The roses and tulips have been virtually replaced now. Long gone are the days of chocolates and flowers to express your desire to reconnect with someone, whether it be futile or no, in the hopes of reviving a romance. Yearning took a little effort.

We, men and women alike, now get only blips of the past. We hear the chirping of our phones, read the words and are left on our own to see the bouquet, to smell the fantasy fragrance filling the room. We are left to our own imaginations to decipher what kind of flowers they might be, how they might smell and where we should proudly display them. For some of us, these virtual bouquets fill an entire virtual room, while for others they’re left on the kitchen counter, as small as the font on the screen in which they were delivered.