You need never bark at the moon alone

Saturday, 14 October 1995

Remembering that you are not the only lunatic in the world can really brighten your day...

My last job was as a research scientist at the Centre for Advanced Studies, Research and Development in Sardinia, that Italian island in the middle of the Mediterranean. I'm in Amsterdam right now, but since Europe is today smaller than Gauteng, I've arranged to meet a group of colleagues for a whistle-stop reunion.

Around the last time I saw them, we were awaiting the pasta course at the restaurant Piccolo Mondo Antico. But let me first introduce the others.

Antoine Trannoy is a Clouseauesque Parisian who speaks both English and Italian with an outrageous French accent.

Ralf Santos is a burly American who exudes tons of boyish charm. He has a hearty guffaw that registers quite high on the Richter scale.

Paolo Malara is one of my allievi ricercatori (research assistants). He has the inscrutability and deliberately toneless voice that makes him a perfect straight man, for those who don't recognise the twinkle in his eye.

Franco Pirrodi is a network technician, whose English is as bad as my Italian.

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Luigi Filipini, another allievo, wears a coat and tie to work because he's not required to, and drives a Lancia Dedra which drives many people crazy since he should not be able to afford it. (He moonlights as a PC consultant which brings in his real income.)

But back to my story...

On seeing the waiter supposedly heading for our table but making an abrupt u-turn and scuttling off at the last second, Ralf let out one of his trademark guffaws. "I was thinking about that joke," said he to me.

"Which one?"

"These two guys walk into a bar ..." (I reached out and smacked him across the nose with my napkin.) "No, really." (Smack, guffaw.) "And the one asks the other: `Where are you going?' `To the movies.' `What are you going to see?' Quo Vadis. `What does that mean?' `Where are you going.' `I don't know. Maybe the movies. What did you say that was?' Quo Vadis `What does that mean?' `Where are you going' `I don't know. What does that mean?' `Where are you going?'

I glared. Ralf shut up, grinning. Luigi pointed out helpfully that "quo vadis" did not mean "where are you going" and at best could mean "where are they going".

"No, it's not meant to be taken seriously," said I. "It's one of those comedic gimmicks. Like `Who's on first...'"

"What's on second!" said Ralf immediately.

"Rain Man!" chorused Antoine and Paolo.

"Abbot and Costello, actually. Rain Man used an excerpt from the original sketch."

"It was very funny," said Antoine in his outrageous accent, "but I never understood it."

"Quo vadis," said Ralf in the direction of the waiter.

I patiently explained to Antoine that the player's name was "Who". He smacked his forehead. Paolo looked at me with interest. "What are you doing?" he asked.

I was at the time cleaning my knife with my napkin. Not satisfied, I switched the knife with one from the next table. "Slime," I said. Paolo raised his eyebrows. "Slime!" I said more loudly following the universally accepted principle that if someone doesn't understand you, shouting will help. He shook his head.

"What do you call the stuff that comes out of your nose?" I asked Paolo.

"Well," said he. "There is the simpatico (euphemistic) way of saying it. It is mocce (pronounced something like `more chair'). The other way to call it is tarzanetti."

"Tarzanetti?"

"Yes. You know what is Tarzan? You know how he swings from the tree without falling? Mostly? So, you know, `tarzanetti' is `little tarzans'."

Ralf lost it at that point. I managed to hold out for at three seconds before following suit. "I don't understand," said Antoine in his outrageous accent.

"Snot," I said finally when I had caught my breath and swigged even more of the house wine. "The English word for that is `snot'. Slime is a generic term for something that has the consistency of snot."

"I have not heard of this," said Paolo.

"Don't those guys at the Anglo-American School of Languages teach you any real English? Snot has an honoured place in English literature," said I pompously. Paolo and Luigi caught the twinkle in my eye. Antoine did not. "In fact," I added, "There's an old proverb:

"If you kiss your honey
"When your nose is runny
"You may think its funny
"But its snot."

Most of the table lost it at this point except for Antoine, who observed self-righteously that this was a fine topic to be discussing when food was about to be served.

"Not so. In fact, the best time is before the first course arrives," said I.

"Who's on first?" asked Ralf helpfully.