Of all the often peculiar jobs that Washington DC is prone to (esoteric and mind-numbing in their specifications), the one of translator for a chef in charge of large numbers of tourist hordes must rank as one of the least appreciated.
But given the surge of outsiders during the spring season, including 'foreigners' from outside our borders, it should not surprise people to hear about young Marc, of Senegal and London, a student at Howard University.
Student by day; translator by night - or, rather, the dinner hour, when chef-manager Rob Gilson at Harriet's Family Restaurant (a first-in-class graduate of the C.I.A. recently employed at the Blue Duck Tavern) handles such large groups of French speakers that he requires from one to three translators. They explain dishes available and answer the usual tourist questions. Groups like these are usually staying at the modestly priced Harrington Hotel, an historic building now in its 101st year. Dating back to 1914, it is three blocks from the White House, one block to Ford's Theatre, and one block from the F.B.I. Government staff parties take place there in 'off season.'. The Harrington probably is one of the most famous tourist 'sites' that few locals know about. A timeline of events in American history adorns one of the hotel lobby walls.
One night not long ago, a loud-mouthed French Canadian let go a derogatory comment when Gilson happened by the man's chair and, as a favor, picked up the man's jacket that had fallen to the floor. Out came in French a rude expression - something like "get away you American dog" - no doubt a misunderstanding but nevertheless a shocking retort for a simple act of charity. (Did he think someone was stealing his coat?) Up stepped 19-year-old handsome Marc, a Gilson hire (paid minimum wage plus generous tips), who told the man in so many words in French to cool it.
On a better day, chef Gilson in his kitchen whites is prone to tell waves of French visitors in a joking mood "welcome to the oldest dive in Washington." Nothing too romantic about the place: brown and beige, TVs rattling overhead. But 'dive'? He means it fondly. The French look puzzled, as does Marc who asks the chef how to translate the word so customers will understand it.
Harriet's and the Harrington get all kinds and always a typical kind of tourist. Recently, a seven-member jazz band, called Susita, composed of 10th grade students at Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Israel, were invited to take part in a 'Big Band Jam' in DC. They perform solo, compose, arrange - and, while in Washington, played the Israeli Embassy but also Blues Alley, and on their last night took over Harriet's dining room to give a free concert open to anyone passing by. Another time an English girls' rugby team was in the house - and, hungry after the day's outing, ate everything in sight.
According to a recent report, the past year was been a banner year for visitors to the nation's capital. More than 18.3 million, an increase of 5.2 percent, buzzing in swarms around our fabled buildings and monuments. That's a lot of tee-shirts.