It is the beginning of another month and thus time for another installment of the Ohmygod saga (to catch up on the previous installments click on the Ohmygod menu up top). As you will recall, I used to be a cycling tour guide in Europe for several years. Through that job (yes, it is a bit difficult to call it a ‘job’) I met countless interesting people and have a few compelling stories to tell, but most of them pale to the story of Ohmygod, one of the clients that I had for two weeks. Some may wonder about the moniker, but the name chose itself really; it is what I uttered repeatedly during just about every interaction with him.
In the previous installment (Part Sixteen), I had just finished dinner with Ohmygod and in a brief, but memorable moment of complete, utter stupidity, I asked him if he wanted to get an after dinner beer. Moments after we sat down, we were joined by Mr. Personality and Grumpy, and the former had just asked us if we would like to smoke cigars.
I cringed as Ohmygod accepted the cigar nonchalantly—almost as if Mr. Personality had been there moments before and briefly left to buy cigars at Ohmygod’s behest. I was quickly yanked away from my angst, however, when Grumpy asked to see the menu that I was inexplicably still clutching–it turns out the two of them had spent most of their time since they had arrived in town at a bar with a few Australian graduate students and they never got around to eating. Seeing that it was now just a few minutes shy of 11:00, I expressed my doubts to the duo that the kitchen would be very keen on producing much in the way of gastronomy, but I would certainly ask when (if?) the waitered returned.
Much to my surprise, a few minutes later the same waiter that witnessed Ohmygod’s hacking episode returned to our table–clearly he could not foist us upon anyone else there working that night. It also seemed clear that he was not happy about the situation. Unlike his counterparts in the U.S., it had nothing to do with any lack of potential tip (although any waiter that saw a 50 year old man sit down at his table at 11:00 at night in full cycling regalia–including shoes, gloves, and helmet–would have to be a complete moron if he thought he was going to get a decent tip). In France (as well as most of Europe), waiters do not live on tips. (The French word for “tip” is “pourboire” which literally means “for (a) drink” and it is just that, a bit extra so that the waiter could buy himself a beer after work.) No, most French waiters see themselves as professionals and actually take pride in their work and this waiter realized that our table had the potential to make his life a living hell.
Sadly, I knew I was about to make it worse.
I asked the waiter if there was any way that we could order a meal, even though I assumed that the kitchen was either already closed or certainly well along the way to that end. Here again, was an inherent difference between the two cultures (yes, I am lumping Canada and the U.S. into one “culture”–anyone who denies this is kidding themselves, and is most certainly Canadian): in the U.S., the restaurant would almost invariably have something that could be served in order to squeak out a little more cash. In France, the emphasis is more on the way of life, not on maximizing profits. The chef has a family waiting for him, as do the sous-chefs, dishwashers, all down the line. There is also much stronger support for the rights of the worker in Europe and closing time usually is not negotiable.
Therefore, I was not all that surprised when the waiter looked rather shocked, disturbed, even offended as he gave me the “Are you out of your imperialistic mind?” look. Not deterred, I pleaded with him to ask the chef if he could possibly throw together a salad or even a cheese plate. I pulled every card I thought I could play: I pointed out that we were cyclists and had been riding hard all day, joked that we were in the Tour de France (though this was undermined by the clients who no one would mistake for “serious cyclists” but just about every French person I encountered used this same joke in some form when they found out I was part of a bike tour).
Finally, I played my wild card:
“Ils sont fous ces Americains.” (They are crazy, those Americans). It is a refrain that is commonly heard in French, one which appears to have traveled the route from funny to cliché to irreverent.
I thought I saw the beginning of a smile, but this guy kept true to his Gallic ancestors stating that the kitchen was closed and there was little that he could do.
When he came back four minutes later with napkins and place settings, I realized that the chef was French to the core: There is only one “trump” as far as I can tell when it comes to protecting their way of life—proselytizing that way of life to others. Of course they would “throw” something together—it would be inhumane to allow someone to not experience French food. So why all the histrionics by the waiter? Like the conductor back on the platform in Paris, he wanted me to know that there are rules. He expected me to follow the rules, but he had no intention of enforcing the rules.
All this time I had ignored Ohmygod, which is a fatal mistake if there ever was one. I had noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was still attempting to light his cigar and it was not going well. I saw him toss away several matches as he was unsuccessful in getting his cigar lit. After the waiter brought out the table settings and it was clear that food was on the way, I turned my full attention back to Ohmygod since, after all, he was literally dealing with fire.
He had already gone through what seemed to be about a dozen matches, and there was barely a scintilla of evidence for his labor. He was clearly determined to get it lit, though, as he kept lighting matches followed by sucking on the cigar as if he had just resurfaced after being submerged for several minutes. To no avail. On about his 16th match, a couple of attractive woman came up to the table, greeting Grumpy very warmly–it turned out being two of the Australians that they had met at the bar earlier.
After a few moments gawking at the attractive blondes, I instinctively swung back to Ohmygod. As he was attempting to light his cigar, he allowed this 17th match to burn all the way down to his fingertips. He quickly flicked the match away but not before it singed his fingers, which he immediately began to shake violently, accompanied by a high-pitched shriek—not dissimilar to the sound a cat might make if someone jumped forcefully onto its tail. The still burning match traveled about two feet to the right and landed directly in Grumpy’s lap. Neither Grumpy (who was busy talking to his two interlocutors, thinking he somehow had a chance with at least one of them), nor the two women (both of whom were startled by the blood-curdling shriek) noticed the match land squarely between Grumpy’s legs.
As if watching a hotly contested tennis match, I turned back to Ohmygod, who was oblivious to the trajectory of the match, as he was busy stuffing his fingers into his mouth, while still managing to emit a considerable amount of noise. Mr. Personality started to snigger, almost as if this was what he had hoped for when he offered Ohmygod the Cuban cigar.
I sat there a bit stunned: I was not entirely sure if the best course of action was to chastise Ohmygod once again for his outrageous antics or to simply keep my mouth shut. I was loathe to alert Grumpy since saying “Grumpy, do you realize that a flaming match just landed in your crotch?” would probably kill any remote chance he had with either of the two buxom ladies from down-under.
Instead, I decided to ignore the entire episode (after all, it was still technically my night off) and instead focus on my own cigar (for a moment I thought I was emulating Ohmygod, but when I saw him start to pick his nose with one hand while trying to light his cigar with match #18, I realized I was out of the woods). Mr.Personality handed me a cigar cutter and was having a difficult time not erupting with laughter. He motioned that Ohmygod had not cut off the end off of his cigar, which now made his futility more understandable. After I cut my own cigar, I was about to pass the cutter to Ohmygod when there was another loud shriek. If I were not looking directly at him, I would have been sure that Ohmygod had once again burned his fingers trying to light the uncut stogie. But it was not he that screeched.
It was Grumpy.
He quickly stood up and was staring down at his crotch. The match that Ohmygod had tossed away apparently lit Grumpy’s napkin on fire. Grumpy’s mini-harem started to scream, as Grumpy frantically tried to pat out the fire. Mr. Personality could no longer contain himself and he burst out laughing. All the commotion even grabbed Ohmygod’s attention: he calmly picked up his glass of water and made a direct hit on Grumpy’s crotch, effectively dousing the tiny flame.
As Grumpy tried to assess his private area (his khaki pants now appeared as though he had an accident of an entirely different nature), his two female friends, perhaps realizing that they could still escape this train wreck virtually unscathed, quietly snuck away. Just then, the waiter returned with Grumpy and Mr. Personality’s dinner. He glanced at Grumpy’s stained pants with a look of horror and I thought for a moment that he was going to turn and run back into the restaurant, finally having enough of us crazy Americans. (Yes, half of our quartet was Canadian, but given the events already transpired and the well-earned reputation of Yanks abroad, I am certain he considered us all as coming from the good ol’ U.S. of A.) Instead, he placed the plates down in front of the intended diners. While I imagined that the kitchen would be able to throw something tasty together, I was nonetheless surprised by the composed salad of smoked duck and foie gras.
Let’s face it, the French think they are at the top of the heap when it comes to cuisine and I would be a fool not to agree. Mr. Personality seemed genuinely pleased and I am sure that Grumpy would be as well as soon as the shock of recent events began to recede.
Ohmygod had returned to his cigar, still unable to get it lit. He had come to the end of the matches, however, which meant that I would not be lighting mine any time soon either. Once he failed again with his last match, and when he realized that he had gone through the entire box, he turned to me and said:
“How do you say matches in French? I need to ask the waiter for some more.”
Without hesitating I told him I had no idea.