|A quick bite for dinner
||[Jun. 20th, 2012|04:32 pm]
The four of us--myself, Harry from Jersey, Sean from Dublin, and Alex the native Colombian--found ourselves in a subcompact built for European roads but seemingly christened in the Bay State. The fact that Harry was the reluctant caretaker of the vehicle is a story in itself--Scott (also from Jersey) had rented it but had been dispatched to Brussels and left it behind for his return, which would have been that evening had there not been some mishap on the railway between Paris and Limoges. Unfortunately there was, and he was forced to find lodging in Paris that night, an effort that took him back and forth across the city and involved many fruitless minutes on the phone with the corporate travel agency. A hotel room was finally located by the Charles de Gaulle Airport around 1am. But I digress. |
After a long day of work, Eric, the site director at the plant and our local host in Limgoes, gave us the name of a Moroccan restaurant for dinner. The four of us would head out first and he would meet us there. In preparation, I did a quick digital to analog conversion of some navigational data (i.e. I looked stuff up on Google Maps and then hand-drew a map), including the location of the hotel where Sean was guesting and Harry needed to check-in due to recent itinerary adjustments of his own. As we left, Sean noted that no one would be at the reception desk past 7:30pm to receive him, but that we had ample time to get to the hotel. Sean, a tall, gangly fellow, contorted himself and joined me in the backseat of the tiny hatchback. It was like sitting next to a praying mantis. With Harry holding a steady rein on his anxiety over driving for the first time in France, in a car that labored to respond due to its heavy payload, we set off.
I directed our movements towards the town center through roundabouts and forks and unfamiliar signage. That is, until Alex, who had been to Limoges several times in the past, began getting his bearings. Or so he managed to convince us. At a decision point between two major thoroughfares, Alex said one thing and the scrap of paper in my hand said another. Harry eased off the gas, hesitating as he considered. Alex reasserted his claim. "Yes, yes, yes. This is the way. For sure." I could only plead ignorance, having drawn but one route to the hotel. Harry opted for Alex and his historical experience and we angled hard to the right. I shrugged and put aside my now-obsolete map. Sean's eyes followed the motion of the paper from my lap to the seat, glanced at the unreliable and intermittent signal his BlackBerry's GPS app was receiving, and scrunched up in a worried wince.
Alex, brimming with confidence in his newly established navigational role, drummed his fingers along the windowsill contentedly. "Yup. I know exactly how to get to my hotel." The rest of us did a collective double take. "Wait, what? No, no, no. We have to get to Sean's hotel by 7:30 so Harry can check in." "Sean's hotel? No. I don't know how to get there. We're going to my hotel. But no problem. Once we get there, we can ask them how to get to Sean's hotel." All of a sudden the sand in the hourglass seemed to flow a bit faster. Sean winced again, harder. He and I began awkwardly reaching over the backs of our seats into the trunk for his bag (which was at the bottom of the pile) so he could find the phone number of the hotel. We struggled like astronauts scrambling for repair parts inside the cramped confines of an imperiled space capsule.
Arranging for Harry's key to be made available in the likely event that we would show up after 7:30pm was now priority. "Hello, bonjour. Ah, do you speak English?" Pause. "Only a little?" Wince. "My name is Sean and I'm staying at your hotel. I have a colleague who is coming in late, can you leave a key for him somewhere?...yes, a safe will be fine...what is the number for the safe?...where is the safe located?" They went a few rounds of reconfirming information before he hung up. He slowly lowered the phone from his ear and looked at me, wordlessly affirming the truth we both knew. It was in God's hands, now.
Alex is fair-to-middling when it comes to directing a driver. Instructions to turn would come with precious little time to react and queries were unheard or answered late. We had little doubt that numerous rules of the road were violated as a result. Red lights were run, illegal turns made, I think we drove for at least a quarter mile in a lane designated for taxis and cablecars only. The perceived jeering we were receiving from pedestrians may well have been concerned warnings to get back in the appropriate lane.
All of which would have been manageable had Alex actually known where he was going. At one point he told us that there was a joke in his family that when his sister would lose her way while driving, she would just follow the car in front of her and hope it shared her destination. After a very short time it became clear this was not simply a family joke, but rather a shared trait and practice. Multiple pull-overs to ask for directions were as successful as you would expect interactions between non-French speaking foreigners and non-English speaking locals to be.
Alex: Where is the big library [Alex's go-to landmark]? Bibliotheque?
Locals: [French french french]
Alex: OK! Merci!
[We continue driving]
Alex: Did anyone hear if he said left or right?
We finally did make a screeching halt in front of Alex's hotel, driving up on a low sidewalk. All of us except for Harry climbed out of the car and Alex hurriedly made his way inside to ask where Sean's hotel was located. I started to follow, as we had decided that Alex and I would walk to the restaurant while Sean and Harry would stop at the hotel first together. Sean scanned the area and realized he actually recognized where he was. Looking like he had just been given a new lease on life--or at least the time he needed to get to the hotel in time--he told me to inform Alex that he and Harry now knew where they were going and would meet us at the restaurant. I dashed inside with the news, and Alex emerged from the hotel lobby a moment later, just in time to see the Ka tumble off the curb and zip off in a cloud of road dust. Alex stood staring after them for an agonizing minute, a look of betrayal haunting his features. A highlighted tourist map was in his hand, rustling gently in the evening breeze.
Alex and I walked to the restaurant, a cozy storefront with fewer than ten tables. It was deserted when we arrived, which prompted Alex, emboldened by his past patronage, to wander up the private stairs calling in search of the owner. "Bon soir! Bon soir! Bon soir!" The gentleman would eventually make his appearance through the front door, in time to see Alex return from his nosing around the upper level. The owner was graciously not put out by that, which added to Alex's overblown sense of familiarity with him and his establishment. Alex's "Don't you remember me? Remember when I came last time? With the other American? Scott [not the previously mentioned Scott]? The tall one [with accompanying "tall" gesture]?" was met with a stare that was as blank as his smile was welcoming. Dinner, mercifully guided by Eric, was fantastic.
Postlude: Harry and Sean did in fact make it in time to the hotel to properly check-in, and arrived at the restaurant shortly after Alex and I.
In a cab.