Doorbells and Sleigh Bells and Schnitzel with Noodles

We started studying The Sound of Music back in January, and we’ve only just now reached My Favorite Things, not even an hour into the movie. Which turned out to be a real challenge to teach. Maria makes several references to winter activities—warm woolen mittens, snowflakes, silver-white winters that melt into springs—that just don’t make much sense here in equatorial Africa. Even after translating the words into French to make them easier to understand, they weren’t any easier to understand. Someone thought they had seen un traîneau (a sleigh) once, but it was just a children’s toy. I tried to explain it could also be a real vehicle pulled by horses over snow. At that point all eyes glazed over.

The best I could do was create a handout for them (shown above) with pictures of all these bizarre items. Bright copper kettles, brown paper packages tied up with strings, cream-colored ponies. When it came to the schnitzel with noodles, the idea was still unclear for them. After hearing me describe the meat being flattened, breaded, and fried, someone suggested, “Oh! A pizza.” Other students kept confusing it with the crisp apple strudel. Another thought it was a wild goose (one of those that fly with the moon on their wings) captured and put on a plate.

Clearly, it was time for a stronger visual aid.

When I took a Spanish class in Chile, my fondest memory is going with one of my teachers on a field trip to downtown Santiago. We toured the fish market and visited all the vegetable stalls and sat down for lunch with a fresh plate of empanadas. Another teacher took me out for pisco sours after class. I took a short-lived German class once, after which we celebrated with dinner, and I never forgot the flavor of that gurkensalat. (It’s also about the only German word I can still recall today.) In France, we had a cheese lesson and a crepe-making lesson during class, and a wine tasting one evening. Food is a great way to learn. They say the more senses you can engage while you’re learning, the better you’ll remember it.

Most of the folks in my class don’t have the option to take exotic language classes abroad. They can’t even go into town and pretend to immerse themselves in little Germany or little Italy for awhile. Even though schnitzel isn’t exactly standard American fare (what is, though, really?), I still wanted to give them a cultural experience to go along with what they’re learning. Plus, they deserve a nice reward every now and then. Several of these students have been with me since the start, more than three years ago. They show up every day, they do their best, they say thank you, and they don’t ask for a thing. There have been others who’ve come only seeking gifts or favors, and let’s just say they didn’t attend very long. I’ve learned a few tricks to weed out the ones who are just looking for freebies.

So, on Thursday I told my class I would cook chicken schnitzel for them and we’d have lunch together on Friday. But it was just for us, just for our class. If they invited all their friends and relatives, or suddenly a bunch of new students showed up… no deal. This made everyone laugh.

not a pizza

not a pizza

Schnitzel Day turned out to be pretty fun. Good attendance, as I had expected, without an extra visitor in sight. A couple students dressed up. One told me he had skipped dinner the night before so he would be good and hungry for lunch. One of the new guys from the gym didn’t want any food; he was on a diet. Or at least I think that’s what he wanted to say. So we went over those words, including “No thank you, I’m a vegetarian.” I thought this might be strange vocabulary in these parts, but I was wrong. One guy ate his noodles but didn’t touch the schnitzel. When I asked him if everything was ok, he said very slowly and perfectly: “No thank you, I’m a vegetarian.” Cute.

One of the students had brought his camera and wanted to take pictures of the food, of me, and of everyone else. Soon the conversation turned to the Congolese habit of not smiling in photos. They admitted they don’t smile on purpose, and were on the cusp of telling me why, laughing and teasing each other, “You tell her, you tell her!” But the best I could get out of them was “Don’t you already know?” and “I don’t know how to explain,” and “Well maybe it’s just our culture.” I said ok, I can accept that. Then another guy said, “But maybe we will start smiling now, for you!”

And so while we ate dessert (character Brigitta’s favorite thing, cupcakes with chocolate icing), we practiced another food word: “CHEESE!”


smiling for the camera, for once



I doubt these guys will ever forget what a schnitzel is after this. Now if only I could import snow…

Thanks to blogger Bananamondaes for inspiration/ideas around the recipes and photo collage!


    1. Hope so! We continued studying that song and the vocabulary for a few more class periods after that, and they always nodded and smiled when we came across the part about “schnitzel with noodles”!


  1. So true…food is the best way to communicate with each other – especially when they have a fantastic chef like you!


    1. Haha, I thought the schnitzel was rather tasty, but you never know. Once at a potjie contest here (a South African dutch-oven style of cooking) we asked a Congolese visitor to taste our oxtail stew. He ate it, slowly, without saying much. At the end we asked if he liked it. He said, “Non, c’est pas bon. Pas de tout.” (Nope, it’s not good. Not at all.) That stew had won second place the year before!


  2. How awesome! Brilliant idea and execution!
    I had never thought about it, but I would bet that there are quite a few people outside of Africa who have NO idea what Schnitzel is!


    1. Yeah, it’s not exactly American food, or even an English word, so kind of a strange example. I chose it mostly because I had a huge 2kg bag of frozen chicken breasts that needed to be used, and it’s a pretty simple recipe! Funnily enough, the last time I had schnitzel was at a picnic in Ethiopia, visiting a Mozambican friend from grad school! Maybe schnitzel is as widespread and cross-cultural as pizza, after all…


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