A few years ago I had dinner with two female friends in St Tropez.
The restaurant was very stylish, one of those where you sit outside along a charming, pedestrian-only street, sip wine, watch the ultra-chic stroll by, and pretend you belong there.
It was a wonderful evening except for the fact that my friends kept rambling on about how incredibly handsome our waiter was. I’m not usually the jealous type, but an entire meal spent talking about an attractive waiter is a bit much don’t you think?
Something else bothered me.
He was apparently so good-looking that they were rendered completely oblivious to his abysmal English. I’m not just lashing out here. My Italian was better than his English and I don’t speak Italian. For the girls, though, the carnage discharged from his mouth that night sounded as smooth and silky as just-served foie gras.
“Oh my god, did you see his eyes?”
“An endless sea of blue!”
“I know! I know! And it’s so obvious he works out!”
“And his English is sooooo good!”
“I know! I know!”
During the first course, thankfully, Mr. Marvelous remained pleasantly absent, resting comfortably, I assumed, in a secret mirrored room reserved exclusively for irritating handsome people.
Then, at just the right moment, he swept in on a cloud of pulchritude to collect our plates.
“Iz finished?” he said to the girls with a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.
“Oh yeeeeesss. It was soooooo good!” They cooed in unison, all the while tucking delicate strands of freshly washed hair behind blushing ears.
I watched in silence, arms akimbo, as this embarrassing little episode played itself out.
What does that mean exactly?
Is he asking if the world is coming to an end?
Does he want to know if my career is over?
Now let me just say for the record that butchering a language is something I’m intimately familiar with. Ask anyone in my family, my French friends, numerous shop owners and assorted restaurateurs and bar keeps between the Italian border and Marseilles. They’ll tell you. I fully understand how difficult learning a new language is and I have tremendous admiration for anyone courageous enough to give it a shot.
For that reason I waited a full ten seconds before I started planning the waiters demise.
Several options ran through my mind, the best of which seemed to be following him home after work and beating him to death with an English dictionary.
I could even leave a little calling card of sorts once the deed was done. Maybe a short note taped over his mouth proclaiming “Yes, iz finished!”
The second course arrived and for the rest of the evening Mr. Marvelous and I settled into what can best be described as a subtle game of chess between two pre-schoolers who don’t know how to play chess. The girls enjoyed themselves immensely, watching with delight as I spoke only French to Mr. Marvelous and he responded, neonate style, in a language no conscious adult had ever heard.
By the time dessert arrived the little street was empty and the festive lights strung so gloriously above our heads had begun to fade.
St Tropez was winding down.
It was then I realized, albeit begrudgingly, that I had developed a modicum of respect for my twinkle-eyed adversary. He was doing the very best he could with his hallucinatory English and debilitating good looks. He had responded to my tacit challenge and over the course of an entire French meal, fought the good, albeit impossible-to-understand, fight.
Who was I to judge him?
I stood to leave, sated by good food and better wine.
I decided against following him home with a hard-cover English dictionary.
No, not tonight my friend. You, gallant warrior, shall live to babble incoherently another day.
Instead, I paid him the highest compliment I know of in France.
I tipped him.