About a million years ago I was a bartender for a certain chain restaurant on the Ice Rink level of the Galleria in Houston, Texas. To be fair, I exaggerate a little, given that a million years ago Earth was knee-deep in the Quaternary period of the Cenozoic Era, but let’s not quibble over chronological accuracy.
As a bartender in the Galleria, the shopping mecca of America’s fourth-largest city, I waited on, and otherwise served, all types—bartenders from the competing chain restaurant on the opposite side of the ice, cantankerous cosmetics counter ladies from the anchor stores, Kid Rock, foreign visitors from all over.
My ability to speak French, always at the ready like the Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly , made for a great way to connect to traveling Francophones (also a great name for a band). At various times I met the Belgian owner of a Belgian restaurant in town, French families in Houston because their work in the petroleum industry or at Air Liquide forced them there, even random Americans who had, like me, studied abroad in France.
My most favorite encounters, though, were the équipages from airlines like SAS, Air France, or even Swiss Air. Sometimes they would come in for lunch, having just settled in the hotel after their arrival at IAH; other times they would come in at night, a last soirée before heading out the next afternoon. Especially when it was the former, you could tell simply by the uniforms who they were and what they did. As to the latter, only a clever mix of eavesdropping and patience would reveal their identities. And that’s when I’d spring into ACTION!
Yes, like the proverbial caped polyglots we know all too well, I would at unexpected moments pepper my otherwise witty and engaging bartender banter with some French. It always caught them by surprise, and always made for an interesting, but bonne, continuation of the meal. One memory seared into my brain involved a group of four Air France crewmembers, contentedly chatting away as they awaited their food. Upon its arrival, I began handing it out, delicately, poetically, my every move a testament to the art of serving. At the dink of each dish hitting the table, the over-sized hamburgers and ginormous servings of grilled chicken were met with gasps and concern. The crescendo arrived as I served to the last plate-less man an order of the baby back ribs for which the chain had made itself, if not famous, at least recognizable through a catchy song in a big marketing ploy. The ribs spilled over the side of the plate, a bone-in barbecue waterfall, and the insane amount of food for this one man became more than menu photo and clichéd jingle, it became reality. “Oh là là, mon Dieu, c’est trop, c’est trop!” he said in French, the others nodding vigorously in agreement. “Oh good God, it’s too much, it’s too much!” I smiled, too, asked in English if anyone needed anything, then turned to walk away. With perfect comic timing, and just the right effect, I turned back and said to the man with the ribs, “Bonne chance!” [Good luck!] With that I scurried away.
The rule for most restaurants is two minutes or two bites, that is, return to the table within two minutes or after two bites have been taken in order to make sure that each guest is happy with the meal. If there’s a problem, it can be solved before someone finishes two-thirds of her plate. I made the requisite return, and was met with a cascade of questions in French. How did I know the language? Where did I learn it? Have I been to France? It was a lovely conversation, and it ended with the rib-eater telling me “I must say, your pronunciation of ‘Bonne chance!’ was perfect, just perfect.” Head swimming in ego expansion, I couldn’t say merci enough.
Nowadays I get to spring my French onto people in other ways. I can’t wait for my niece and sister to advance in their own French studies so that we can carry on conversations that will escape the understanding of those around us as we wait in line for movie tickets. I look forward, maybe, one day, to a girlfriend or spouse who speaks French, so that out at dinner, we can talk and gossip about the other guests. Or better yet, discuss a piece of art in a crowded gallery or a big purchase unbeknownst to eavesdroppers and cloying salesmen.
I say this of course, but as Honda has shown, even those secret conversations might not be so secret. And I have to admit, though I’m really envious of the couple, I’d much rather be the salesman.