Eat Your Words: Lao Tzu Drinks Beer

mug of beer

When I think of untranslatable words, I think of the concept captured by sixth century BC Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu:

“Shape clay into vessel;

It is the shape within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes that make it useful.

Therefore benefit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.”

The sublime of the untranslatable is to finally hear the word given to what we have experienced but never named in our own tongue. What are our efforts then, when we re-create an Old Country dish or avant- garde the latest fusion, but to try and taste the words and taste longing? If the tongue craves foreign words to give voice to experience, won’t it crave food to the same effect?

Weighty themes, yes, but any immigrant can attest to the melancholy that happens when the dish never tastes quite the same as it does in the motherland. Adaptation is the hallmark of our patterns of displacement and coming home. We are making something from what is no longer there. Simultaneously, there is also a whimsy and delight in hearing an untranslatable word for the first time carrying with it, across cultures and oceans, a universal truth of human perception and experience.

Most any San Franciscan knows well the joy of drinking a beer in the sun and after a long bout of fog or wind, and so does most any resident of Oslo, Norway, though they are longitudes apart. And yet for some reason, English, that magpie of a language, didn’t borrow Norway’s word for one of our greatest American pastimes: utepils —the joy of drinking a beer outside in the sunshine. It’s pronounced OO-teh-peels and it is as fun to say as it is to do.

And while Lao-Tzu didn’t speak a lick of Norwegian, utepils is an allegory to his words, both literally and figuratively. The land is the vessel that holds the fog. The bottle is the vessel that holds the beer. Uncap and make a hole to drink from. The sun burns a hole in the fog. The beer is beneficial and useful. We drink the sun. OK, I might be stretching it a bit—blame the poet in me. But the more poetic and less drunken parallel is that this simple act of drinking a beer in the sunshine is ephemeral; it wouldn’t be easily unearthed in documents thousands of years from now, but it is a timeless sensation—an understated joy. If we describe the first day of gardening in the spring and the satisfaction of drinking a cold beer in the warm afternoon, streaked with sweat and dirt, our listener implicitly understands that sweet balm to the grind of a cold, dark winter (or summer, if you’re in San Francisco).

I call the Norwegian Consulate of San Francisco and have a lovely conversation with Liecel Tverli, consular officer, to get a better understanding of what the word means in a cultural sense. “That’s a very commonly used word, and we usually mean it when the weather warms up and we gather with friends and roast hot dogs on the fire,” she says. I begin to notice how many of the untranslatable words I come across have to do with gathering and community, which is an inherent part of our common experience. And yet I am aware that I ate in my car on the way to work twice this week and I’ve sent more texts to friends than made plans to gather and slowly drink in both sunshine and beer. Perhaps we stamp culture onto a word to seal its value. In my visits to Nordic countries, I have always been touched by what I’ve perceived as a common ability to acknowledge darkness and light in the human experience with a deadpan practicality and honesty.

On that note, Tverli offers another Norwegian word that expresses a sentiment around a great summertime pastime: Bålkos. Bålkos is made of two words—the first one, bål, means fire, and the second, kos, translates to something like cozy enjoyment or cuddling. Kristian Singh-Nergård, a Norwegian who resides in Brooklyn, NY, says bålkos can happen any time of year, but it’s most often associated with summer and it’s the feeling one has when gathered around a campfire, cooking food and drinking with friends and family. In English we will invite friends to a barbecue or have a campfire, but there aren’t any words to describe the feeling one has in doing that, although it is such a universal sentiment to sense the languid waning of the sun as the embers glow and someone plucks at a guitar. We mark time and place with invisible names and tastes. If we are displaced, even happily so, we find reassurance in re-creating space and feeling through food and gathering.

Lao-Tzu, as the father of Taoism, was most likely illustrating the importance of not becoming attached to the concrete or to material possessions, but his words align perfectly with the bittersweet sensation of the seasonal ways we erect our traditions to keep our simple truths alive. Drink beer in the sunshine and cozy up to the campfire, be it at Outside Lands or on a distant mountain.

Here is a fun Norwegian recipe for orange chocolate cake on the campfire towards the end of the evening.