Waiting in the 11th Arrondissement
The man seems nervous to me whereas the woman is much more relaxed. She walks confidently through the door, open, smiling, happy to be here. The man on the other hand is constantly looking elsewhere, checking out who is in the restaurant, which is still quite empty at this early hour. Parisians don’t usually eat until much later in the evening and the woman, who had come in only hours earlier to book a table, took what was on offer; eight o’ clock on a Saturday evening.
Damn, I cannot remember her name although I recognize her face, not a great start. Heading behind the desk I check the reservations book until her name appears. I know her from the neighborhood, I don’t actually know her but I recognize her face. I have often seen her riding her bicycle, the one with the basket on the front or sitting at the window of the bar around the corner, sometimes first thing in the morning, reading the newspapers whilst drinking her coffee. From time to time I’ve seen her in the neighborhood bars, usually stopping only for one drink.
“Let’s move on. The next bar, let’s move on” that’s always the cry when bar hopping in Paris.
Sometimes she comes into the bars with friends and sometimes alone, and if alone she always end up speaking to someone. From this I would say she was a long term resident in the area. She seems to know everyone or perhaps her gregarious nature, attractive face and infectious laugh make it easy for her to make friends.
She always smiles at me whenever we see each other on the street or in the bars but we have never said more than a friendly bonjour or bonsoir. I’ve never seen the man before, not that I can remember. He’s not from around here I don’t think, although who knows in this city.
“Hello, we booked a table earlier.”
The woman says this in perfect English whereas when making the reservation she had spoken in French. She isn’t drunk but looks as if she has had a few drinks. She looks exuberant, sparkling, ready to enjoy her evening. I remember that the man had been standing at the door earlier while she was making the reservation. He was holding a bottle of what looked like Champagne, so I assumed they had drunk this before coming here. A few glasses of Champagne always helps to make the eyes sparkle.
“Oui, Mademoiselle. How are you both this evening?”
Both smile back at me and say fine, very well, thank you. The restaurant is practically empty but I place them at a table for two near to the bar/desk area, this way I will be able to easily hear their conversation. I’m not an eavesdropper but it’s not busy and frankly I’m bored but also curious about the couple, maybe more curious about her than him.
I direct them to their seats and hand them both a wine menu.
“French,” the man says after a minute, “I know rouge and blanc and that’s it. I’m going to have to leave it to you to decide.”
“We’ll just have the house wine. Shall we get a bottle of red?”
”Absolutely, that’s fine.”
I fetch the bottle of red and open it at the table, pour a little into the glass and the man tastes it.
“That’s great, thank you.”
I get the feeling he doesn’t have a great deal of wine knowledge but I don’t hold it against him, why should I? It’s not obligatory to have a vast knowledge of wine, and I try my best to always dispel the falsehood that so many foreigners have of the snotty and rude French waiters, which is such a cliché, although I can turn it on with some of the customers if needed, especially the foreign finger clickers and the ones who think waiters are mere servants. A few months earlier the boss made me take down the sign I had made, “you get the service you deserve” written in English not French. My boss said it was antagonistic to the customers. If that’s the case he should reconsider the décor in here.
The man seems pleasant enough though, friendly but slightly reserved. He still appears nervous, constantly looking around the restaurant and alternating between rubbing his arm and twisting the ring on his finger, maybe he did a line along with the Champagne. She is relaxed, probably used to eating in restaurants a lot. There are plenty of restaurants in this neighborhood and I’m sure I’ve seen her in a few.
The only time the man appears not to be nervous is when he is speaking to the woman. He stares straight into her eyes when answering a question or talking to her. His face relaxes as he listens intently to what she has to say, he is quiet, doesn’t interrupt her and allows her to finish talking. A sign, I think, that he trusts her, respects her opinion and is interested in what she has to say. Believe me, I’ve seen couples sit in here for hours barely acknowledging each other.
Do they look suited?
They seem to be about the same age, late thirties I would guess. Both well dressed although not overly dressed, just casual, understated. They look like a nice couple. I think maybe they would be the type I would be friends with; I would get on with them.
What am I talking about I don’t even know them.
I would tell the guy to stop looking so nervous for a start. Is he married? Is this an affair and he’s nervous of being seen out in public with her? No, I’m not getting that feeling at all from them although I could be wrong. I would say it’s still quite an early stage in the relationship. The way they are looking at each other, holding hands over the table, a few weeks maybe, a few nights? I always try to work out these little details before the customers have left the restaurant; it’s one of the perks of the job plus I’m studying psychology and this restaurant is better than any of my classes for learning about people’s idiosyncrasies and social habits.
Both the man and woman decide to forgo starters and he settles for Beef Wellington, a safe choice for foreigners who are not comfortable with French cuisine. She orders Steamed Mussels in Vermouth. After I have brought both dishes over I return to my listening post behind the desk. For about thirty minutes they discuss the food and where they will go later, nothing much of interest.
“Can I tell you something honest and you won’t be mad?” The man says.
Now this sounds interesting. The kitchen staff would have lined up next to me in an instant if they had heard a customer using the words ‘honest’ and ‘won’t be mad’ in a question. I knew they were in the early stages of their relationship. I slide my body quietly along behind the desk, closer to them in order to hear clearly.
The woman doesn’t put down her cutlery but does stop to stare at the man.
“You’re married.” She says.
“What? No, no, of course not. I’m not married.”
“No I’m not gay either. Why would you think that after last night?”
“Because that’s just the way my luck goes.”
She pauses and looks the man directly in the eyes as if trying to stare down an oncoming train.
“Okay. What is it?”
”It’s nothing really. Forget it, I’m just being stupid. It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh come on, you have to tell me now.”
Yes you must.
“Okay. Well, it’s just, this is my idea of hell.”
He says this as a matter of fact.
“What? What is your idea of hell?”
She sounds slightly confused as if she hasn’t heard him clearly.
“This, being in a restaurant, having people serve me, being crushed in with all these people.”
The woman and I both look around the near deserted restaurant at the same time.
“We are hardly sardines here are we?”
She sounds angry. This is a woman with a quick temper if she is pushed I think.
“No but you know what I mean.”
“No I don’t know what you mean. Being in a restaurant in Paris with me, eating nice food and drinking delicious wine is your idea of hell? I’d rather you had said you were gay.”
“Oh look, come on, I didn’t mean being here with you was my idea of hell, not at all. Don’t get angry.”
The ground should swallow him up right now. My god, what a thing to say. Imbecile.
“Well that’s how it sounds to me, how do you expect me to react? Being here with me is your idea of hell. Thank you, thank you very much. Why not take my head now and shove it into your Beef Wellington?”
The woman is furious, her face turning red. The man places his hand across the table trying to take her hand but she pushes it away.
“Look I just mean being in restaurants, I’m not all that used to it, it’s uncomfortable for me. I don’t know why I just always find it hard to relax in restaurants.”
“You know if you had said that before I had booked this we could have just went to a pizza place, I would have been happy with a few slices of pizza and a beer. I mean crushed in, what is that? The feeling that you are trapped here with me, that you can’t escape or smoke cigarettes when you want?”
Her voice is rising now, in fact she is almost shouting. Shit this was good stuff so early on in the night. Usually the dramatics don’t start until much later. I pour myself a glass of red.
“Look, stop. That’s not what I meant. We’re just getting to know each other and I thought I would tell you something honest. You said before that I could tell you anything. I’m just not a big lover of restaurants. I’m sorry, I think I picked the wrong time to bring it up.”
“You think you picked the wrong time? Really? Remarkable insight for once, bravo. You came with me earlier to book the restaurant and then you wait until we are having the meal to tell me that this is your idea of hell.”
“Stop it.” The man says softly but firmly. It doesn’t make a difference to the woman’s mood.
“It’s incredible, I just can’t believe it. You are already in trouble with the waiter.”
What? I have no idea what she is talking about. If anything he is in my good books for the enjoyable theatrics. Shit, what a fool though. I can see what’s running through his mind right now, how the hell did I screw this up so badly? The woman has no intention of calming down no matter how many times he apologizes or asks her to stop. To be honest I think she is taking it too personally but it was an incredibly insensitive thing to say. Leave the honesty at home during the beginning of a relationship, there’s no need for it, it will only screw things up.
I decide that it is time for an intervention before plates are smashed and the entire night is ruined for both of them. I approach their table.
“Is everything alright? Can I get you anything else?”
The woman responds to me in French saying that the food is superb and that she will recommend this restaurant to her friends and that she writes for magazines and would make sure we were mentioned. I turn to the man who is sitting biting the corner of his lip, one eyebrow raised for some reason.
“Monsieur, do you speak French?”
”No. he doesn’t speak French,” the woman says with increasing pitch, “he knows nothing of the French, knows nothing of their culture and has no intention of learning I’m sure.”
The man sighs in defeat.
“Okay, enough. Can I have the cheque please?”
I bring it over to him and he quickly fishes out his cash.
“Is this enough for a tip?” He asks the woman.
“Yes it’s fine.” She says as she puts on her coat and grabs her bag. “I honestly wouldn’t give more than a 15% tip for an evening in hell.”
“Bonsoir,” I say as they both get ready to leave and then head to the exit. “See you soon.”
They have been in the restaurant for little over an hour.
As they move towards the door I notice that the man no longer seems nervous. Once they have closed the door they both stop and stand outside. Even though it has started to rain lightly they seem in no hurry to move on, and I watch them through the glass door, both of them illuminated under the glow of the street lamp. He is saying something to her. She is looking in the opposite direction, away from his face. He takes out a packet of cigarettes, lights one and gives it to her. Again he speaks and this time she looks directly at him, no longer angry but with a hurt expression. He stops talking and puts his hand to her face for a moment and then moves his thumb softly across her cheek. Four men push between them barging through the restaurant door and shouting bonsoir at me, obstructing my view of the couple.
When I finally manage to look out again through the glass door I can see only the dark empty street.
Waiting in the 11th Arrondissment is taken from A Relationship, in Pieces, a set of three short stories available on Amazon.
Many thanks to Yanick Delafoge for his permission to use his photograph Fear of Time to accompany this story. Yanick is a street photographer who is presently on an 80 week trip around the world. His photographs from different locations around the world can be viewed on his website Yanidel Street Photography. You can also follow Yanick on his Facebook page Yanidel Street Photography and on Twitter.
Tags: argument, couple, French, honesty, paris, restaurant, waiter