Monday, June 27, 2011

So embarrassed

Back at the time I took my daughter and son out to my birthplace for the first time, they were greatly amused by a conversation they had overheard between giggling Australian schoolgirls. After relating a trivial anecdote that terminated in an innocuous remark from her boyfriend (I forget the details of what they might have been talking about), the story-teller exclaimed to her impassioned listeners, in a peculiar drawn-out Aussie accent: "I was so embarrassed!" For years afterwards, whenever my daughter alluded to amusing personal relationships in Australia, she would punctuate her stories with that exclamation, pronounced appropriately: "I was so embarrassed!"

Well, that's what I felt like saying when I saw this demonstration of an Aussie TV talk-show host, Karl Stevanovic, who made a failed attempt to tell an insipid joke to the Dalai Lama. Somebody found a delightful adjective to describe this TV guy: goofy. I know nothing about Karl's culture and credentials, but his behavior in front of the Dalai Lama was stupid, indeed vulgar. It's tactless to tell a silly joke in the presence of, and about, a distinguished visitor from a different social community, particularly when that joke uses Down Under vernacular.

The supposedly hilarious theme of the joke (which to me, a native speaker of Australian English, isn't the least bit funny) is the idea of the Dalai Lama saying to a pizza man: "Make me one with everything." Already, in a genuine pizza context (with which the Dalai Lama may or may not be familiar), this vague "with everything" request would be stupid. Pizzas come in countless varieties. In Australia, you can even find so-called gourmet pizzas with kangaroo and crocodile meat. The uninspired creator of the silly joke was thinking rather of a takeout (takeaway) hamburger or meat pie situation in which the purchaser can request extra sauces or vegetables such as fried onions or mashed potatoes. In that narrow context, the "with everything" request might be meaningful, indicating that all the extras are to be included. Years ago, I got into the habit of making that kind of request in the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, where I used to buy Israeli-style falafels.

From a religious viewpoint, it's not at all certain that the Dalai Lama would ever imagine the idea of praying to a divinity and including a naive request: "Make me one with everything." To my mind, that doesn't sound like Dalai Lama talk, more like Aussie media talk.

If I'd been in the position of the goofy TV guy, and felt an urgent need to tell the Dalai Lama an Aussie joke, I would have chosen my pie story.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Australia had a huge intake of immigrant laborers for massive civil-engineering projects, many of these so-called "New Australians" spoke little English. In the case of Luigi, from Sicily, his English was so poor that he was ill-at-ease about entering a shop to buy something to eat. Fortunately, his compatriot Aldo was able to help Luigi by teaching him how to say "apple pie".

[Part of the funniness of this joke, when told aloud in an Aussie pub setting, stems from Luigi's awkward pronunciation of this expression: "ah-pull pah-ee".]

In the beginning, Luigi was thrilled to be able to step into shops and ask for an "ah-pull pah-ee". But soon he was fed up with dining exclusively, for days on end, on apple pies. So, he asked Aldo to teach him another expression. Aldo told him how to say "meat pie"… which Luigi pronounced quaintly as "mit pah-ee". So, Luigi stepped confidently into a shop in the hope of obtaining a meat pie. But the reactions of the shop lady were unexpected…

[This is the part of my joke that links up with the incident concerning the goofy guy's joke. In the case of my joke, I would have to explain to the Dalai Lama a trivial Aussie habit. Some people eat their meat pies daubed with tomato ketchup, whereas others prefer their pies without this sauce. So the person selling a meat pie would ask the client to indicate his/her preference. Now, this was such a familiar aspect of the Australian meat pie situation that the sales person would often simply ask: "With or without?"]

SHOP LADY: "With or without, love?"

LUIGI (not understanding the lady's question): "Mit pah-ee."

SHOP LADY: "Yeah, I understood you, love. But with or without?"

LUIGI (totally baffled, repeats his request): "Mit pah-ee."

SHOP LADY (annoyed): "Jeez, would you mind telling me, with or without?"

LUIGI: "Ah-pull pah-ee".

I authorize Karl Stevanovic, if he so desires, to try out my pie joke on the pope, when he next visits Australia.

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