In 1988, I did a lecture tour in Australia. One of the early venues was Tamworth, the nation's country music capital. Afterward, we gathered in the Long Yard Hotel, and I ordered a Federation beer, a dark local brew. A week later I was in Cairns, a town to the north. A local colleague offered to buy me a drink, but I could not remember the name of the beer. I knew it ended in ion. I thought of aggravation, prostitution, termination, and irritation. To be funny, I said, "Yes, I'll have that dark beer they make in Tamworth. I think it's called constipation."
Two weeks later, I was in Brisbane. When I checked into the hotel, I found that I had a letter waiting for me. In the envelope was an article from a Cairns newspaper with the headline "Yank orders constipation beer."
I once did a lecture tour of Israel. On a free day, my wife and I took a guided trail ride to see the ruins of a Roman fort. We paused at the top of a canyon.
"Down at the bottom of the valley is where David slew Goliath," our guide said, pointing.
After I digested this astounding piece of information, I asked, "Is that why the grass is all trampled?"
I will never forget the bewildered look on the guide's face.
A few years later, I toured Kenya with a group of Americans. As we traveled the veldt, populated with thousands of animals, we discussed the game conservation laws established by the government's Dr. Richard Leakey, son of renowned anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey.
Our driver did not appreciate Americans or our sense of humor. From where I sat in the van, I could see his face, and when one of us made a humorous remark, he would roll his eyes. He never laughed, not even at the comments made by Mary Lee Kind, my partner's wife, who has a scathingly brilliant wit and is a constant source of dry humor. She never smiles when making these funny comments, and our driver took each one seriously.
We spotted a solitary bull elephant with a urinary problem. With every step, he dribbled urine. Our guide explained, "He old bull. Lives alone. He have trouble with his water. Make water all the time."
"Oh," I said. "He's famous in America."
"Really?" our driver asked in surprise.
"Sure! We call him Dr. Leakey!"
In the mirror, I saw his eyes roll, then a reflective expression, and finally, he collapsed in laughter.
Sometimes the tables are turned. We Americans may fail to appreciate the humor of other nations. In 1979, I was a speaker at the British Veterinary Association Congress in Exeter. Unlike American veterinary banquets, European banquets are quite formal. As my wife and I entered the banquet hall with our 16-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, a doorman in 18th-century livery said, "Your card, sir." I gave the doorman my card, and he rapped three times with a gold staff and cried, "Dr. and Mrs. Robert M. Miller and family, from America."
My kids were bug-eyed!
We were seated at a table. An array of goblets, glasses, and silverware sat at each place, as did an elaborate menu featuring many courses and a program: first, a toast to the queen, then an invocation followed by a litany of speakers.
"This will be a boring dinner," I warned the kids. "Don't forget that you are representing the United States. Your behavior must be impeccable."
They nodded, their faces filled with apprehension.
Finally we heard, "To her majesty the queen!"
Then the invocation: "Oh Lord, let us not be like porridge, slow and hard to stir. Let us be like corn flakes, quick and ready to serve!"
From that moment on, the evening was the funniest I have ever experienced. Each speaker outdid the preceding one—brilliant, dry British humor. Ever since, I have felt that our banquets are stiff and the speakers maudlin.
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at www.robertmmiller.com.