When traveling abroad for a week or more, I prefer renting a house or an apartment rather than staying in a hotel. It not only gives me the freedom to come and go as I please, but if you have enough people it’s significantly less expensive. And if you enjoy cooking, like I do, you then have an excuse to browse the local markets and check out the selection of regional produce. When looking for a place to rent, whether it’s a house or an apartment, I have a certain list of criteria that I always insist on. It must have wi-fi so I can stay connected with the outside world; it must have an adequate number of bedrooms and bathrooms; and for allergy reasons, it needs to be a no smoking and animal-free property. And when I rent a place in the English countryside, which I am apt to do in the springtime, a nearby pub is also on my list of requirements. After a long day of touring, unwinding at a pub is a great way to end the day. But the last thing I want to do is to get back in the car after returning home and drive somewhere else, which is why I insist that there’s a pub within walking distance.
The pub is not only a great institution and often of historical significance (think Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London), but after the British music revolution of the 1960’s, in my opinion, it may be England’s greatest contribution to modern society. It’s not only a place to knock back a few pints and enjoy a chip butty or a Sunday roast, but somewhere to find companionship, catch up on all the neighborhood gossip and debate the latest sport scores and political news. And for most regulars, it’s not just an escape but a home away from home.
Since I was going to be staying in Menton on the French Riviera for three months, one of my earliest objectives was to find my local. Since pubs are a rarity in the South of France, I decided that my best bet would be one of the many cafés along the Promenade du Soleil, which runs along the beachfront the length of Menton. My plan was to stop by in the late afternoon, take out my iPad and start jotting down my thoughts for the day, hoping to be inspired by the Mediterranean on one side and the Alps on the other. But with so many cafés along the promenade, all with similar menus and views, the question was where to go. Since I had plenty of time, I decided to simply start at one end of the Promenade and try a different café each afternoon in search of my perfect spot. While the wine and ambiance were wonderful at each of the cafés that I visited, there was none of that camaraderie that you find in most English pubs. And unfortunately, most of the waiters at the cafés I had stopped at were merely serving machines; just clearing tables, taking orders and collecting money. There was no personal touch. And without any meaningful interaction, I might as well be having a glass of wine in my apartment while watching French television. The comprehension level, enjoyment and sociability would be about the same.
Towards the end of my second week in Menton I stopped at La Vita è Bella, a café along the promenade not too far from my rental apartment. The server, standing guard by the large blackboard of daily specials, greeted me with a friendly “Bonjour Monsieur,” a promising start, I thought. I sat down and ordered a glass of white wine, which was served with some crackers and a smile. The next day I was passing by La Bella Vita on my afternoon constitutional debating where I should stop, when I was greeted with another friendly “Bonjour” by the same server I had seen the day before. But this time she added“Une verre du vin blanc, monsieur?” remembering what I had drank the previous day. I immediately sat down wondering if this could be my place.
I soon became a regular at La Vita è Bella and returned most afternoons to rendezvous with my waitress friend. Unfortunately, our conversations were rather brief and in the best of British pub traditions, were mostly limited to superficial comments about the weather. Our discussions did not progress past that point. In fact, in all of my visits, I never once asked her name. All I knew was the rather enigmatic PATOU3 that was used to identify the name of my server on the receipt. This was fine with me, as I thought that this added an air of mystery to our relationship. Well, relationship is a bit too strong of a word. After all we only saw each other a few times a week and always at the same café and always in a professional server-customer capacity. Dante had his Beatrice and I had my PATOU3. But instead of representing ideal love, she was my ideal barkeep, always there with a friendly smile, a kind word and ready to hear about my troubles. If only I could speak French!
I really wanted to confide in her about my day’s activities, but all my limited French could muster was “Il fait très beau aujourd’huit” and the occasional “Comment allez-vous?” After a while, I began recognizing other regulars at the café and I started to feel like part of the group. My visits here in the afternoon were my connection to the local community and in the end actual conversation was not just unimportant, but unnecessary. My mere presence gave me a sense of belonging. I looked forward to our meetings and she in turn seemed glad to see me. And for a lonely traveler from the States, that was enough.
One afternoon, a few weeks later, I decided to visit La Vita è Bella at noon for some lunch, instead of my usual afternoon glass of wine. Upon seeing me, PATOU3 asked with a wink, “Je n’avais aucune idée que c’était si tard.” On the surface, saying “that she had no idea that it was so late” might seem like just a casual comment of no real importance, but I found her response rather significant. It not only showed that she had a keen sense of humor, but the fact that she was now making witty comebacks to me in French indicated that I wasn’t just another English-speaking tourist passing through the South of France, but I was now accepted as a regular. I had finally found my local!
But then, a few weeks later, the unthinkable happened. I arrived at La Vita è Bella and no PATOU3. By then I knew her schedule and she was usually off on Wednesdays and Thursdays; but today was Friday. My wine was brought to me by another server and I sulked as I sipped my glass of wine like a child who was being punished. I returned the next day, but again my “companion” was not there. On Sunday, still no PATOU3. By now, both my mood and my wine had soured. I started to panic. Is she sick? Is she gone for good? Will I ever see her again? “This is beginning to get serious,” I had made no real friends since my arrival in Menton, just a handful of acquaintances from the restaurants that I frequented. Besides PATOU3, there were a few chef/owners that remembered me and would occasionally chat with me during (or after) a meal. So, losing one of my conversation partners, limited as it was, would have been a very disappointing development. Using my mangled French, I managed to ask my server where she was. “En vacances, monsieur,” was his response. “Elle est en vacances.” On vacation! Of course! That explains it, I thought with a sigh of relief.
Whenever there was some downtime during the following week, I thought about what I would say to PATOU3 when she returned. Being a classic film buff, I ran through some of the great ending lines of some of my favorite movies, but none of those seemed to work very well. In the end I decided to just say “I’ve been waiting quite a long time for my glass of wine!” Not quite “Where the Devil are my slippers?” or “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” but it would do nicely. Using an online translation program, I came up with “J’attendais depuis longtemps pour mon verre du vin!” I repeated it over and over again, hoping that the translation made sense and more importantly, that my French accent was somewhat comprehensible.
After much practice, I was ready for my big moment and anxiously awaited her return. At last, she was back. I took a seat at my usual table closest to the beach, overlooking the Mediterranean. She quickly spotted me and after a short detour inside the café, she headed over to my table. But before I could even open my mouth, she was standing by my side with a glass of white wine already in hand. And with all the drama of a Broadway diva she completely upstaged me by stealing my line: “Je pense que j’ai ce que vous attendiez longtemps pour votre vin.”
There was an unexpected strength in her voice and a finality in her tone that took me by surprise, and all I could manage to say in return was a feeble “merci.” Friendly, agreeable, humorous and a flare for the dramatic; perhaps this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship after all!