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 three 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 Twenty-Seven), we rode through the Vallée de la Marne, where we stopped for a wine tasting at a random local producer. It turned out to be one of the more memorable wine tastings I have ever experienced.
I hopped on my bike, which might not have been the best idea after having consumed the equivalent of a full bottle of bubbles (I find it hard to spit when I am tasting champagne). I had about a dozen kilometers ahead of me into Epernay, which would normally take about 20 minutes.
I made my way along the Marne slowly–I shudder to think what the French motorists thought as I bobbed and weaved my way down the road.
Close to an hour later, I rolled into Epernay, one of the two “capitals” of Champagne.
(The other being Reims, which would be our destination the following morning. One could argue the existence of a third city of importance in Champagne, Troyes, capital of the Aube region, will start to play a larger role as the fruit and wines from the Côte des Bar continue to rise in quality and prominence).
As I pulled up to the hotel, the buzz from the Roger tasting was finally wearing off (the exertion of riding, although modest, and imbibing a considerable amount of water was having its desired effect).
I glanced at my watch: 6:15. Yikes. I needed to get into my room, grab a quick shower and then head out and find a restaurant for dinner. My plan was to head over to one of my favorite restaurants in town, La Table Kobus, which was not far from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Epernay. Although not particularly religious, I always visit the cathedrals in the towns I visit. I am not sure why this might be, perhaps I am looking for some sort of atonement, but more likely, I am just fascinated with medieval architecture. It was not until my third or fourth visit to the church in Epernay, however, that I learned that construction on the Epernay cathedral did not start until the end of the 19th Century.
I said I was fascinated by medieval architecture; I never said I was any sort of expert.
As I was approaching the church, on my way to the restaurant (most restaurants in France do not open for dinner until 7:00 at the earliest and, for the most part, they do not answer their phone before then either), I heard a voice call out my name. It was Maggie, who sitting at a small table in a café by herself. She waved me over and asked me if I would like to join her for a glass of champagne before dinner. I glanced at my watch (6:55), and just as I was about to graciously decline (I really needed to be at the restaurant at 7:00 if there was any hope of getting a table for seven), the waiter brought out the bottle: a half bottle of Gosset Grande Réserve—my favorite Non-Vintage Brut.
I sat down.
As the waiter proceeded to open the bottle, I wondered what were the odds that Maggie selected this bottle randomly—I picked up the wine list and there were at least 20 half bottles of champagne on the list, and I started to feel a little uncomfortable. As in I was seated across from a potential stalker kind of uncomfortable. But hey, I had a bubbling flute of my favorite nectar, so I chalked it up to pure chance.
Yeah, I’m that easy.
So we started talking a bit, and it turned out that I had mentioned at some point while pontificating about champagne production that Gosset Grande Réserve was at the top of my heap. I let her know that I was surprised that she remembered that Gosset was my favorite.
Then she went off.
And not in a good way.
What followed was a 2 minute harangue claiming that she was not an idiot, and while she might have a terrible sense of direction, causing her to get lost once in a while, she was actually quite smart. She claimed she always paid close attention to everything I said and was great at making mental notes–she knew that I had two sisters and a brother, and knew my birthday, even my shoe size.
I had no idea that I had divulged that much information.
Note to self: I need to stop drinking so much and learn how to keep my mouth shut, or I might end up with a horse head in my bed or a rabbit on my stove.
After her diatribe, noticing perhaps that I was feeling more than a bit shell-shocked, Maggie apologized.
“Sorry, I am just a bit on edge–my fiancé found out about my dalliance with my professor–I am pretty sure that he is going to call off the engagement.”
“Um, ya think?” I thought, but only mustered a sympathetic smile.
What followed was a rather detailed breakdown of her entire relationship: how they met, why they started dating, the fact that he was still a virgin while she had lost her virginity in high school, where they were planning to honeymoon, her thoughts on children vs. career.
“Wait, did you say ‘virgin’?”–another unvoiced thought–voicing it would lead to nowhere good. It was now 7:10 and I still did not have a restaurant reservation. And I was faced with a bottomless rabbit hole of relationship hell. I understand that a tour leader needs to be attentive to client issues, but in my mind, it is clearly less therapist and more bartender.
[“Sure I will listen to your problems and even try to appear sympathetic, as long as you realize that I have a job to do (and leave a substantial tip).”]
I glanced at my watch (7:20), picked up my flute, and drained the remains. It was not the attention that the wine deserved, but I needed to get moving. As I stood to leave, trying to think of a proper segue to escape (“Sorry your love life is in utter shambles, but, well, what were you thinking?!?” was not quite it…), Maggie grabbed my wrist and suggested we have another bottle, with a look that suggested a bit “more” than a bottle of bubbles.
I sat down.
This was not going to be easy.
I told Maggie that I would be happy to share another bottle with her, but I needed to go and ensure that we had a table for dinner first. She seemed to snap out of her reverie for at least a moment and agreed that securing a table was paramount.
Relieved, I got up to leave again, and once more she grabbed my wrist.
“Why don’t you chose a bottle, go make the reservation, and come back—the bottle and I will be waiting for you….”
Oh boy, here we go….
Stressed by the relentless advance of my watch, but also realizing that she would not likely take “No” for an answer, I relented, picked up the wine list, and started scanning the half bottles. When Maggie noticed I was focusing on the 375 ml page, she slapped her hand on the selections, and added: “That last bottle was far too small, I need a bigger bottle.”
Had I been a therapist, I would have suggested that another (larger) bottle was in fact the last thing she needed. But being more of a bartender, I flipped a few pages back to the full size bottles. Quickly, I found what must have been a mistake: a bottle of 1996 Pierre Peters Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs for a mere 30€ (about $40). Now, the mark-up on wines in restaurants in France is far less than the U.S. (U.S. restaurants typically mark-up their bottles at least 250% of cost and sometimes as much as 400%, but the French often sell their wine at barely above retail), but ’96 was an incredible year in Champagne and Pierre Peters is perhaps the best known of all the grower champagnes. The bottle could easily be sold at retail for twice that much.
[Most of the well-known houses in Champagne buy their grapes and therefore, at least in theory, have less control over the quality of the fruit. A “Grower Champagne” is made by one who grows their own grapes and makes their own champagne—it is a category of champagne that has exploded in popularity as of late.]
After verifying the price (the waiter nodded and gave a little shrug as if to say he did not understand the price either), I hopped up, keeping both wrists crossed and close to my collar-bone as if ready to careen down a large water slide and ran over to the restaurant.
When I entered the dining room, my heart sank, the room was just two or three tables short of being full. There was no chance we would get a table and I needed to find a second option quickly. I decided to ask the maître d’ for a suggestion as there was no time to wander aimlessly around town at this point. Much to my surprise, he informed me that if I could possibly wait until 8:30 or 9:00, it would be no problem to get a table at his restaurant—the people currently dining were a British tour group that had organized a meal starting at 6:30 and they needed to get back on the road by 8:00.
Relieved, I called the hotel and left a message for the rest of the group, providing the address and slight time change (as per European standards, we had been eating at 8:00).
I then headed back to the bar where I had left Maggie, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. Maybe it was a desire to help “women in distress”. Maybe I was a glutton for punishment.
Maybe I was the one who needed the therapist.
When I got back to the bar, I was relieved to see that both Paul and CC had showed up and each had a glass of the Pierre Peters in front of them. Maggie did not seem too thrilled with her interlocutors, but certainly brightened up when I sat down. Luckily, there was enough left in the bottle for another flute, and the waiter quickly arrived with another glass.
Not even 30 seconds after taking a sip, Anne and Ellen showed up, causing Maggie to roll her eyes with such force and flair that I thought she might pass out. Paul, of course, asked if the pair would like to join us, and they both grabbed chairs and tried to fit in around our tiny table that could barely accommodate two, let alone six.
The two newcomers ordered beers, perhaps as an ode to Ohmygod. Up to the mention of “beer” I realized it had been several hours since I had thought of, much less seen my nemesis (yes, I think he had reached “nemesis” status at this point), and I immediately tried to determine whether his absence was a good or bad thing—I had found that it is perhaps slightly better to have witnessed his destruction when trying to find a remedy.
As the drinks flowed, so did the stories, first about the day’s ride, then the tasting at the Roger’s. As is perhaps normal in group dynamics, each member of the group wants to partake in the telling of tales. Particularly, once a story is told, others feel the need to either add to that story or offer a different anecdote that they think is somehow related and particularly poignant.
Most of the time the second (or third) raconteur attempts to surpass the previous and occasionally, this produces a compelling footnote to the original story, but it takes a rather gregarious and artful story-teller to pull it off.
At the complete other end of the spectrum is the socially awkward, perhaps insecure (but at the same time intelligent) group member who wants so desperately to contribute, but usually fails miserably, coming in way off target.
In our group this role was filled by Paul.
Invariably, after the second or third such attempt, others in the group turn a deaf ear, and there is that awful moment where the teller pans the crowd, looking for the slightest bit of acknowledgement or eye contact to enable him to continue with the story. Eventually, one member of the group will engage him, so as to ease the awkwardness of the situation.
In our group this role was filled by…
I could not help it—nor could I count how many times Paul tried to add on to a story, floundered badly, and was now completely ignored by the rest of the group. Thus, I felt compelled to at least make eye contact with him as he was thrashing out there in social purgatory, often acknowledging his comments with a slight smile or a barely audible chuckle.
Yes, I was an enabler. The schlimazel to Paul’s schlemiel, perhaps.
We ended up getting yet another bottle of champagne (a wonderful Drappier from the Aube) and a couple more beers, since we had a bit more time than anticipated. Near the end of the bottle, just as I was about to announce that we needed to head off to the restaurant, I felt something brush up against my calf under the table.
I moved my leg.
It happened again.
I moved my leg once more.
A third brush.
This time, I did not move my leg, but scanned the table as if I were a poker player looking for a “tell”—perhaps a facial expression that would expose the violator.
But the foot was still caressing my calf.
I scanned the table again.
… a smile…