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 Thirty-Five), I caught up with the group on the outskirts of Reims, the capital of Champagne and a fairly large city. As we were passing by the cathedral, Ohmygod flattened an unsuspecting older woman at a pedestrian cross walk, sending her newly purchased groceries flying in every direction.
The arrival into Reims had clearly not gone as planned–normally I like to catch the group just as they are pulling up to that night’s hotel. No, it is not some sort of twisted version of a Tour de France stage where the sprinters like to catch the breakaway within eyesight of the finish line–it is far less complicated than that: I have a terrible sense of direction and invariably end up getting lost (there was the time that I took a wrong turn in Switzerland and led the entire group up an unnecessary Alp–surprisingly, I did not get the best gratuities on that trip).
There is another reason: whenever I catch up with people, they not only want me to lead them in the right direction, but they also ride incredibly slowly and expect me to fill them in on the entire history of every town, building, and statue. I could, like some other guides I know, make it up as I go along, but the fact of the matter is when I am riding my bike, I pretty much loathe other people; I put my head down and ride hard, there is no time for chit-chat.
As we were scrambling to right all that had gone wrong with our entrance into Reims, I realized that this time it was probably better that I had arrived with the group. First, I otherwise would never have believed what had just happened and it is likely that the rest of the group would have just zoomed on by. Not because they are reprehensible human beings (although I am not willing to dismiss that possibility), but rather for some it is tough to stop and offer any assistance when you do not speak a word of the affected’s language.
We were also in one of my favorite cities in France, one that I had visited dozens of times, and therefore knew fairly well. Omygod had pulverized the unsuspecting woman just a block from the cathedral of Reims, perhaps the most historically significant of all French cathedrals (nearly every French king was crowned inside). The cathedral can be seen from just about everywhere in town (and is visible on the horizon for miles as you approach Reims), and over the years I have memorized the route from the front of the cathedral to our hotel (which is really not all that tough since it is a straight shot of maybe four blocks). So for once I was not only confident in navigation but also able and willing to wax knowledgeably about the environs.
After we scraped the poor woman off the pavement and gathered up most of her scattered groceries, we got back on our bikes and headed to the hotel. After a couple of blocks, we entered a wide open pedestrian section of the city at the end of which was our destination for the next two nights. To get there, though, we needed to dismount and walk our bikes between a few restaurants and their respective terraces. As per her norm, Maggie was not paying attention and nearly ran into a waiter with a tray full of half liter beers (yes, even in the capital of Champagne people drink beer–don’t get me started). She was saved by her not so secret admirer, Paul, who was able to grab her bike, causing Maggie to slow just enough to avoid contact. She turned and flashed him a thankful smile, which dissipated with a provocative wink as his response.
We rolled into the hotel’s courtyard, which is a bit of a garden oasis, and quite a contrast to the bustling restaurant scene just a few meters away. We locked up the bikes in the courtyard and climbed the dozen steps to the entrance. The lobby is a bit tired and worn, but harkens back to perhaps a more glorious time both in the history of France and the hotel. The most striking element, certainly, is the antique elevator, with glass folding door and clear elevator shaft. It seemed obvious that any attention (i.e., Euros) that went into maintaining the hotel undoubtedly went first to the elevator. Although small it was striking.
Every time I arrive in the lobby, the elevator is the first thing I notice. This time was no different, only now it was even more remarkable as the wrought iron door was flung open and there was a bike…
The bike was “standing” upright on its rear wheel, with the front wheel turned and the handlebars extending into the salon, preventing the closing of the seemingly delicate glass doors. I turned to the right to see the hotel’s patron, Madame Dampierre (who was evidently related somehow to the eponymous Champagne house in Bouzy), a woman of perhaps seventy years old, who looked as though she had aged another 10 years since the last time I had seen her four weeks prior. I would certainly not classify her as warm, even on her best day, and by the look on her face, this was clearly not her best day.
I approached the counter apprehensively, scanning the room for Ohmygod, who, predictably, was nowhere to be found. As soon as she saw me, Madame Dampierre went on a bit of a rampage, waving her hands and speaking quite rapidly. My French is certainly well above average and I would definitely consider myself fluent, but I had little idea what she was saying.
I did hear her repeat “ascenseur” (elevator) at least three times in rapid succession with increasing volume. The rest was either said way too quickly or were words that I had yet to, um, “learn”. I tried to interject, but I realized that she was nowhere near finished and I was not going to get a word in until she had exhausted every colorful word a woman of her self-perceived stature was permitted to employ. As she continued, I noticed that there was a youngish man trying to get the bike dislodged from the elevator. I say “youngish” since he was clearly an adult, but he was, well, rather short. So short, in fact, that he was having more than a bit of difficulty getting control of the bike.
OK, that was being kind. He was standing on his toes, trying to grab the handle bars, which were jammed against the outside of the elevator, about six feet above the floor and he was no where close to reaching them. As I stood at the counter, beyond arm’s reach, Madame Dampierre momentarily redirected her diatribe to her diminutive employee, still at a speed that I found difficult to follow. He turned, acknowledging his irate boss, and then turned back to his glass case of frustration. This time around, he decided it was a good idea to jump in an attempt to grab hold of the handlebars, which he seemed convinced were the solution to extracting it from the glass elevator. After his third unsuccessful attempt at jumping, flailing, and failing to grab the bars, I ignored Mme Dampierre, who had refocused her undecipherable diatribe once again at me, and went over to the elevator. As I was making my way over, the poor sap, on his fourth attempt, which involved a three-step running start, actually “succeeded” and latched on to the handlebar with his left hand.
As if he were a dog who had finally caught his elusive squirrel, he was initially excited to have trapped his prey. Within a heartbeat, however, he realized that he had absolutely no idea what to do next. Instead of letting go and allowing gravity to return him to the floor, he held on for dear life as his body twisted involuntarily, as if it were a limp flag in an ever so slight breeze.
I got over to the spectacle, with Mme Dampierre still railing incoherently but now with an even higher volume, and grabbed the human windsock by the waist. I hoisted him up a bit as if the back of his shirt were stuck on a meat hook and he instinctively let loose of the bike. I gently placed him on the floor and then calmly assessed the situation. I turned the handlebars while pushing them back into the elevator and simultaneously grabbing the saddle of the bike and pulling it back toward the lobby.
The bike came out easily, as if it were intended to be stored that way.
I turned with the bike and started strolling back through the lobby, toward the front door of the hotel. The half-sized hotel staffer had a look of awe as I rolled the bike by him, but I was not sure if he was thankful that a) I saved his life, b) he was amazed with the ease with which I liberated the bike, or c) he was awestruck having never seen someone close to twice his height.
As I continued past the front desk, Mme Dampierre had stopped her diatribe altogether and she, too, had a different look upon her face, but it was not amazement. Rather, it appeared to be more of a look of disappointment. She had worked herself into quite a lather and for it to end so unceremoniously (and successfully) was an outcome that she had clearly not envisioned.
Which may have caused her to become even more incensed.
Unfazed, I took the bike back out into the courtyard and over to the door where we house the bikes and locked it to mine. I glanced at my watch and realized that I had a good two hours before I needed to meet my motley crew for dinner. So instead of returning inside to face Mme Dampierre’s damnation, I strolled back out through the courtyard and into the bustling city.
I headed straight up the pedestrian section that we had just descended by bike and retraced the path that we took after cleaning up yet another Ohmygod catastrophe. I knew precisely where I wanted to go: the cathedral.
I am far from religious, but even for someone even less pious than I, the Reims cathedral surely inspires awe. It is hard to pinpoint what it is about the majestic building that requires me to pass through its mammoth spires on every visit to Champagne’s capital. Nearly every French king was crowned in the cathedral as it was the site of the famous battle in 496 that caused France’s first king, Clovis, to convert to Christianity. It is also the spot where Joan of Arc, chasing after the English army, brought Charles VII to be crowned in 1429 (for which he thanked her by giving her up to be burned at the stake).
The building survived both World Wars (the Champagne region saw some of the fiercest fighting), and there is some incredible modern stained glass by Marc Chagall. Plus, the late afternoon light serves to highlight its majesty.
More than enough reasons to go.
More importantly (on a certain level), I needed to make a reservation for dinner.
But first, the cathedral.
For me, Reims and Chartres (the more famous cathedral, on the other side of Paris) are the two must-see cathedrals in France. There are scores more, but none are more significant or awe-worthy than the two that lie but an hour train ride (albeit in opposite directions) from the nation’s capital.
After my religious experience (and successful restaurant reservation), I made my way back to the hotel. On the stroll back, I debated how I would broach the bike-elevator incident with Ohmygod. Our relationships with some of our hotels can be tenuous (as was already the case with the Reims hotel) and just the slightest provocation could cause the hotel to terminate the relationship, resulting in a considerable amount of time and money to find a suitable replacement.
I contemplated not mentioning it at all since that would certainly be the path of least resistance, but I still had another full week with him and I needed to reinforce that there were standards that I expected him to keep.
I am an eternal optimist.
In other words…
…I’m a moron.
By the time I got back to the hotel, Mme Dampierre was no longer at the front desk. Instead, I was greeted by the man who’s dignity (and job) I had hopefully spared by dislodging the bike from the elevator myself. At first, I did not see him sitting behind the desk–the counter is about four and a half feet high, with the desk perhaps half that. Seated, it seemed like he was struggling to have his chin clear the desk, let alone the counter.
He was entirely pleasant though, and handed me my key without any verbal communication acknowledging what had transpired an hour or so ago. There was a hint of a twinkle of gratitude in his eye, and even I thought, a slight wink as he strained to place the key on the counter, which required him to rise out of his seat.
After a quick shower, I descended once again to the lobby to have a quick flute (or two) of the hotel’s “house” champagne before meeting the group for our standing 8:00 dinner. My buddy, the now-receptionist, came over to serve me my wine and I tried to milk a little information out of him. First, his name, which turned out to be Timothé, or as he added: “Ou ‘Tim’ en bref” which loosely translates to “Or ‘Tim’ for short.” I found that particularly amusing and immediately wanted to call him ‘Tiny Tim’ but I resisted the urge for sophomoric humor and managed to suppress my snigger.
I also tried to get him to tell me the source of the hotel’s bubbles. Like many establishments in Champagne, the hotel has its own label on the champagne it serves its guests. For years, I have been trying to get Mme Dampierre to reveal the producer of the wine as it is fantastic–I have purchased many bottles during my various stays in the hotel as the 12€ tariff is more than reasonable, in fact it is practically stealing given the quality of the wine. No doubt Mme Dampierre encourages her patrons to believe that the bottles come from her claimed relatives at Comtes de Dampierre in Bouzy, and my new best friend Tim could not provide any details–he claimed that Mme Dampierre, and only her, would go get the six cases of wine herself to insure that the producers identity remain a secret.
Dejected, but appreciative, I grabbed my flute and a small bowl of peanuts and moved over to one of the five smaller tables that dot the lounge and chose a seat so that I had a view of the staircase that descends into the lobby.
No more than half-way through the glass, Ellen and Anne were the first to come down into the lobby. Just as they were approaching my table, I was astonished to see Ohmygod clumsily descend the staircase. There were many reasons for my shock, not the least of which was the fact that he was a good five minutes early for our rendezvous, which was at least 20 minutes sooner than his previous best. I was also astounded by his evening attire–up until that point, he had either worn his cycling gear (and almost always the clothes he wore to ride that day, with no evidence of having taken them off for a shower), or one of two possible ensembles: plaid pants and a striped shirt (of complete opposite color schemes, which he had worn only once–with a turquoise and maroon tie in the Loire Valley) or cut-off jeans with a “I ♥ Canada” tank top (which had the added benefit of highlighting his distinct tan lines mid-bicep).
Tonight, however, he was wearing a pair of jeans that were actually not offensive in any way other than they were perhaps four inches too short, revealing his mis-matched white tube socks (one had red stripes, the other yellow) that were bunched down as far as possible. His shirt, however, was another story; I doubt anyone has ever seen such a shirt before, much less considered buying it. The most striking feature was its color, which could best be described as a blend of tangerine and chartreuse, resulting in a near day-glow effect that would likely scare off even the most ardent 70’s disco queen.
But the most remarkable aspect of his appearance was neither his promptness nor his attire, but the fact that he had apparently taken a shower on his own volition. Up to this point, a good two weeks into his European adventure, he had only taken two showers, as far as I knew, and both were the result of me threatening him–I had told him in no uncertain terms on both occasions that a shower was required on that particular evening or we would not be allowed into the restaurant.
This time, however, there was no such dictum, but it was clear that he had at least washed his hair as it had a similar puffed out appearance that it had the previous two washings. Although this time was a tad different as he had parted his hair…
…right down the middle.