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the international language of wine


Montparnasse cafe, 1931


On Wednesday night in Paris, I lost my friends. My mobile was out of credit. I called, left a message, I emailed. No luck. I didn’t even know the name of the hotel they were staying in.

Unfortunately, it was dinner time and I was hungry after shopping all day at Galeries Lafayette. (Hard life, I know, but so many stairs in Paris) I decided not to waste my night any longer.

Across the road from the hotel were a row of restaurants featuring Breton crepes. My friends were vegetarian, so here was my chance – sausages, mince and cheese, here I come!

The waiter thought I was Italian, and that was just fine with me. Although, perhaps, an autistic Italian with a bad stammer. Ah well – he looked great in his rugby jersey (the World Cup is on at the moment in France). Anyway, I seem to have perfected a dopey smile that works every time language fails.

He took me to a table squished along a wall with eight other tables so close together he had to pull the table out so I could get in to the booth seat along the wall. Next to me sat two American women.

Perhaps, I was a little tired and emotional after shopping all day.

I thought I ordered only a glass of Bordeaux; he brought over a bottle. My Italian is worse than my French. But I got this far with my dodgy Italian, so I had to keep up the charade and pretend that’s what I had ordered. And anyway, the place was now packed full of local Parisians getting their Wednesday night fix of provincial authenticity; perhaps he did not hear me. Or, he did hear me, and decided I needed a whole bottle of wine to blot out the American women’s inane conversation.

Fine, I’ll have a whole bottle of Bordeaux – tutto il vino è buono! (All wine is good!) Instant friends, me and the waiter.

Nothing like a single woman in a restaurant ordering a whole bottle of the finest red in a restaurant by herself – classy! I felt like Holly Golighty without the sunglasses.

Ten minutes later they’re still discussing “what a green salad” really meant. Was it just lettuce? Could they share a crepe? Can they order the chocolate crepe first and then a salad, but no wine, just tap water… Honestly, I’ve never heard a worse order at a restaurant.

The waiter pulled out the small table next to me. In came two characters straight out ofTais Toi (the slapstick French film starring Daniel Auteil and Gerard Depardieu).


Next to me sat a serious middle-aged man in a beige trench coat and the other, his joker friend, who sat opposite in a pink polo. This guy had more one-liners than an episode of Friends. Everytime he jibed his friend, he raised his eyebrows at me, as if to say – “You know how it is.” Sure, I do, I have no idea what you are talking about. But it felt good to smile along. I didn’t want to disappoint this obviously very funny guy.

His friend was pointedly ignoring him and making great flourishes of his arms while peering down through his glasses over the menu. He looked up now and again and scolded his friend like a child. Each time, the joker frowned mock-seriously at me as if to say, “Oh yes, very serious meal we’ll have here – but just try to make me take it seriously with someone as serious as you!”

I don’t know what they were talking about but I do know I love being part of an in-joke. Even if I have no idea what it is. Any minute now I expected the joker guy to place a whoopy cushion under his seat when he stood up. Not that he’d have a chance; the tables were so squished together, our elbows practically knocked each other while we ate.

The Americans were not happy. Their salad had tomatoes in it. Was it any wonder the waiter got their order wrong when they ordered one dessert and a salad between them at the same time, I wondered.

The wine was standard Bordeaux you find in a Parisian restaurant. The French guys next to me had a pitcher of Rosé and a whiskey Américain. But then, all of a sudden, they both stopped to stare at my bottle of wine.

He became pale. “You know, this is Sarkozy – and it’s right.” The joker laughed and said in English, “Right! Right! Right!” And nearly fell off his chair trying to show me how off-the-scale right wing it was to be Sarkozy.

Apparently the wine I was drinking was owned by a cohort of Sarkozy. I said, “Ah well, I have plenty, you have some.” They rejoined, “non, non, non!” I insisted, “S’il vous plait”. They looked over at the bottle as if it was a bitter lemon.

Instead, they gave me some of their Rosé, which they weren’t particularly impressed by, either. I said, “But I like Rosé, it felt like régénération!” That impressed them, they filled up my glass.

Okay, they’ll try a glass of my wine. They’ll take the nasty right-wing Bordeaux off my hands for me. I said, “you’ll be doing me a favour if it’s that politically corrupt.”

The rest of the evening, through dessert, we had a rollicking time talking in disjointed French about politics, wine and our favourite desserts.

All three of us decided to order flambé crepes just so we could watch the flames burning up in front of us on the table.

The joker guy started to sing everything the serious guy said. I didn’t know the songs, but I sang along, too, and clapped. The serious guy tried to get back to the conversation about politics. Unfortunately for him… more songs!

At the end we agreed, pointing to the bottle, there’s so much in one bottle of wine than just wine: there’s politics, history, geography.

The bottle was soon empty between the three of us. I was genuinely sad to leave and we kissed each other goodbye on the cheeks like long lost friends.