Day 13: There’s No Cerveza on this French Menu!

Had my first real, “Holy fuck what is going on,” moment of this trip while eating dinner at an Italian restaurant in Nice.

I entered just as a harsh clang rang through the cozy space. A server had dropped an empty serving tray and the noise caused all conversation to cease.

An older, jovial looking man with an apron around his waist stood at one of the tables talking to the couple seated there. He turned towards the server and laughed, then applauded. He then looked at me as I stood in the doorway and he smiled. He said something to me in French that made everyone laugh but me.

I stared blankly at him, hoping for a rescue of some sort. He said, in English but with a thick Italian accent, “You don’t understand?” I shrugged and said, “No, but I’m sure it was hilarious,” and he laughed so hard his belly shook.

He and I built rapport easily. He didn’t speak much English, I don’t speak much French, and I don’t know any Italian at all. It didn’t matter. It was easy to see he was a kind man who loves good food and the people who appreciate it. We got along just fine.

Shortly after I finished the amazing gnocchi in Bolognese I’d ordered, while I was contemplating dessert and finishing a glass of wine, a group of four women sat down near me at the large long table where I sat. I could tell they were American; by their accents I guessed from somewhere in the Northeast.

One of them was doing most of the talking. Among the choice things I heard her say were, “What do you think char-cute-errie is?” and, with much frustration, “Well, I mean, how am I supposed to know what I want? Everything is in French!” Another favorite: “What do you think cam-um-burt is?”

It was amazing.

On top of that, she then kept saying she wanted a beer but she didn’t see cerveza anywhere on the menu, while dramatically flipping menu pages in a huff.

I don’t remember exactly when I butted in and started talking to them, but I did so in the hopes I might lessen my new friend’s pain once he came over to wait on them. He had been so kind to me. I felt I needed to intervene.

The women discussed what to order; the loud one wanted pizza because “it seems like a pizza joint, I bet it’s really good here.” I remember leaning forward to tell them the gnocchi had been amazing.

I also recall gently pointing out that in French, beer is biére, not cerveza. Cerveza is Spanish. They were in France. The loud one shrugged and informed me the languages “in all these countries” are Latin-based, so it’s all just the same thing. She insisted she could understand a lot of conversations she overhears because she knows some Spanish.

Okay, then. Clearly, she didn’t want or need my help. Although she suddenly was able to find the cerveza on the menu after that.

My French is middling at best, but I make eye contact and say bonjour when I enter an establishment, and I do my sincere best to order in French at restaurants. I never switch into English without first, in French, apologizing for my lack of French fluency and asking nicely if the person speaks a little English.

Tonight I witnessed how different one’s experience of France might be if they do not make these small efforts.

The women seated near me didn’t try to be nice and, what’s worse, didn’t realize they were being openly rude.

The owner approached their table and they didn’t say hello. They immediately started listing what they wanted. When this sweet man appeared a little taken aback, they asked him, in English and with a bit of an accusatory tone, if he speaks English. He paused for a second, seemed to make a decision, then shook his head and said… no. No, he doesn’t speak any English. The loud woman then asked, in Spanish, if he spoke any Spanish. He shrugged and shook his head as though he didn’t understand the question.

He determined, as I had, that he didn’t like them. He not only pretended to not know a lick of English, but when speaking to them, he didn’t simplify or slow down his French as he had done with me. He talked faster, in fact, and his Italian accent suddenly became far more pronounced.

The women wanted one salad and one entree for the four of them to share and demanded extra plates. The owner made this request as difficult for them to convey as possible. He made them struggle to mime their intent and express themselves using as few words as possible.

As their arm gestures got bigger and their voices louder (“ONE gnocchi. TWO plates. DOS! PLATOS!”) I became increasingly red-faced, both with embarrassment for them and the effort required not to explode with laughter. Just as I was about to lose control completely, the owner made eye contact with me and I caught his eyes twinkling with amusement. I had to look down into my lap, press my lips together, and clench my hands into fists in order to not fall out of my chair in hysterics.

It was mean of him, yes. I felt slightly bad for the women. Yet I thought them ignorant, over-entitled, and downright rude. From the moment they entered the establishment they had been inconsiderate to the establishment and the culture of the country they were visiting.

The owner did give them what they ordered in the way they had ordered it, but (I believe purposefully) put everything down in the wrong spots, and with a bit more force than necessary.

Shortly afterwards, as he passed by me, I stopped him and asked for a dessert menu. He said they didn’t have a printed one, and rattled off the five or so options. I picked the panna cotta.

The women couldn’t believe he hadn’t brought a dessert menu when I asked for one and thought poorly of him for it. Plus, they heard his list of the available desserts as a string of nonsense syllables. One of them mocked his speech and gave a rude impression of what he had sounded like to her. She was openly mean. I told her I’d understood him perfectly but was at a loss for what else to say. The women were, I believe, in their early to mid-60s, and it didn’t seem my place to reprimand them for their behavior. I sorely wanted to, though.

In an attempt to redirect the conversation I mentioned I’d hoped to have a little after dinner drink, and it would have been nice to see what they had. I believe the owner heard the entirety of this exchange; both the woman mocking him and my slight disappointment. In retrospect, I have a feeling he knows exactly what’s going on at every table in his restaurant at every moment.

The next time he passed my table, he stopped to talk to me for a moment, which he hadn’t had a chance to do in a while. He was visibly distressed. He said, in a voice loud enough for the women to hear but in a mixture of French and English and with his Italian accent in overdrive, “I don’t understand these women. People love the food here! But these women, they don’t want to eat, they want extra plates, they want to be rude to me in my own restaurant, I don’t understand these women, I don’t understand why they be like this.”

I couldn’t say anything too specific in reply, since the women would hear and understand me, but I tried to express sympathy and encouragement as best I could. I said, “Oh goodness, I know just what you mean.” I gestured to the rest of the restaurant. “And it’s so busy here! You’re working so hard, and it’s so appreciated. Just look at all these happy people eating all your wonderful food! You do such a wonderful job here!”

This seemed to make him feel a little better. He put his hand on the back of my neck and shook me a little, the way I’ve seen done in movies by older, kindly gentlemen to younger folks they’re fond of, and moved on with, I thought, a bit more of a spring in his step.

He came back a few minutes later with my panna cotta and a free limoncello.

Even before this, the women had consistently expressed surprise to see how nice the owner was to me, how much he seemed to like me. They didn’t understand it. I didn’t know how to explain that it was simply because I had been nice.

Sadly, I have a feeling they wouldn’t have believed me.

Restaurant Don Carlo is located at 7 Rue Paul Déroulède in Nice. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend checking it out.

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