By Brooke Hartman
Photos by Jeff Hartman
As a World Next Door fellow—or a traveler in general— some lost-in-translation moments are inevitable. Although they’re rarely very consequential, they do make for some pretty interesting moments.
While we were in Rwanda, my husband Jeff and I were spending time at a rural, valley-nested, lakeside coffee plantation in the Western part of the country. About halfway through the week, the Plantation Manager, Assistant Agronomist and I sat around the kitchen table racking our brains on how we might obtain ingredients to make an “American” breakfast and dinner, per the request of Anastasi, the woman who cooks for us.
My fallback breakfast staple is eggs in a basket, which I call one-eyed sailors (gets a laugh every time) and French toast, because almost everybody has eggs and bread. Milk was an issue, but after two days of discussion, someone brought a few bags of whole milk from Gisenyi, and so the French toast plan came to life.
I asked if they had things like cinnamon or vanilla or syrup for French toast. When they didn’t understand me, I showed pictures on my laptop. I am still chuckling at the sight of everyone gathered around my laptop, scratching their heads as they studied a picture of cinnamon. “We don’t have,” they said, totally puzzled.
They didn’t recognize the picture of syrup either, and I could never really explain what it was to satisfaction. I decided to improvise with honey (which has crystallized into a thick paste), boiled on the stove with water until syrupy. I asked about vanilla. They got very excited and said, “Yeah! We have! We have!”
We gathered the next morning with the ingredients for eggs in a basket, and they stood around the stove ooooh-ing and ahhh-ing as I cut holes in the bread, cracked an egg inside, and flipped each piece of bread like a pro. We all enjoyed the dish, and it earned a table-wide applause.
The next morning I woke up, and the team was assembled in the kitchen as they had been the day before, but this time with the ingredients for French toast proudly displayed on the counter: eggs, bread, milk and vinegar. Wait, what?! I picked up the vinegar and looked around like, What’s going on here? Everyone smiled and said, Yes! Yes! Vanirra! It turns out, our American accents combined with misplaced emphases, plus the Rwandese tendency to swap ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds, make vanilla sound like vinegar.
They were crushed, and also laughing. They had no idea what vanilla actually was, and we had no electricity to show them on the Internet.
In the end, we made some spectacular French toast with plain old milk and eggs, and I sprinkled a tiny bit of sugar on each side as it cooked. We water-boiled the honey into syrup, and we sliced sweet bananas on top. Five of the six present loved French toast, and reported they’d make the breakfast for their families that weekend.
I’d call that breakfast a rousing success!