Working with my film crew here in Vienna, I’m trying to get the straight story on so much history. I keep remembering Napoleon’s quote: “What is history but a legend agreed upon.”
This afternoon, I dropped into a famous cafe with my cameraman. My hope: to find its rare surviving example of the Vienna coffee menu with a dozen or so shades of brown for customers to order exactly the milkiness of the coffee they desired. The waiter laughed in a snide way, saying some stupid travel writer cooked up that legend decades ago and journalists like you keep coming here looking for a color-coded menu that never existed.
To make my point, I too often accept false history and flat out wrong “factoids.” And, my worst fear is adding to the mess.
For centuries, French was Europe’s common language. I just assumed the term for common language, linguafranca, was literally “French Language.” For a decade that’s what I’ve been “teaching,” and suddenly someone emails me the truth: ‘franca’ is Latin for free or common. The French were named for a gang of barbarians who called themselves “free people” or Franks.
For twenty years I called Paolo, the big never-smiling grumpy man who ran my favorite guest house in the Cinque Terra, Sr. Sorriso. His place was, after all, “Pension Sorriso.” I must have introduced a hundred tour groups to Paolo Sorriso at check-in time. Then Paolo died, and I read his death notice: Paolo Favetta. I ask his brother, “what’s the deal? Favetta? You never told me. All these years I called your brother Sr. Sorriso. He never corrected me!” What’s with Sorriso? His brother, just as grim as Paolo, explained Sorriso means smile. All that time I was sleeping at Pension Smile.