“David Sedaris would have written a whole book about it.” Why can’t you?
We were in our hotel room in Toledo, enjoying a lively discussion over an incident in the breakfast room downstairs. Since we were still in the middle of a pandemic, the meal was served tableside and not from the buffet area. There were also no printed menus available, so the waitress had to repeat all of the food options for each table. From her bullet-train delivery, it was evident it was not her first breakfast service during this plague. She gave everyone two options to choose from: orange juice or Cola Cao, coffee with milk or solo, toast with jamón and tomato or marmalade and butter, and finally, croissant or fruit. It was a listening test. You had to pay attention and record all the options in your mind because a second after she recited it, there was the interrogation: What would you like to have?
I gathered all this while eavesdropping on the Spanish couple behind us who were having their order taken. As soon as the waitress went away to get the hot drinks for the Spanish family, I quickly translated all the options for Robert, and we agreed in advance what we would order so that when she approached us, we would be prepared. I like waiters to be proud of me.
She’s such a good customer. I imagine them talking about me back in the kitchen. I wish more people would be like her.
So, I was a bit disappointed that she did not show any sign of approval for the speed and decisiveness with which we made our order. But soon, my attention was drawn to an older gentlemanwho was wandering around the breakfast room, bending over people’s tables and inspecting their plates. He soon approached us and started pointing at the food on Robert’s plate and asking questions in heavily-accented French-English?
“What’s that?” his index finger was pointing at Robert’s plate.
It became evident that he did not speak any Spanish and the waitress’s Texas-cattle-market-auction style of delivery only scared him; like me, he decided to do his homework before the teacher asked her students to repeat the lesson.
I heard Robert murmur something under his nose, and it did not sound amicable. While I usually just roll my eyes at the British-French squabbles, I had to agree that to my highly trained eye of a self-professed snob, the man was not used to strolling the Champs-Élysées or dining in Montmartre. He was a simple countryman, or whatever the French word for a country bumpkin is. For some inexplicable reason, he found himself teleported from a wheat field in Normandy to a breakfast room in a medieval Spanish town. He looked lost and bewildered.
His finger was now approximately fifty millimetres from the piece of jamón on Robert’s toast. Were we in certain parts of the United States, the plates would be flying in the air, and the security would be called in to stop the unfolding brawl. A year earlier, I saw on the news that a Floridian had shot a father and his kids in a waffle house during a dispute over condiments. I had to admire Robert’s nerves of steel. It must have been the man’s old age that stopped my normally very short-tempered husband from saying anything, and instead, he patiently watched the fat finger almost touching his food. I was a bit worried that a bomb might go off if the enquiring finger eventually touched the toast.
“It’s a toast with tomato and jamón,” I explained to the anciano, as he would be called in Spain, but he did not seem to understand me because he kept on prodding in the direction of Robert’s toast and asking: What is it?
“It’s ham,” Robert translated jamón as it appeared the man did not understand Spanish food vocabulary.
“No, the red one,” his arthritic finger was now almost poking the toast underneath the slice of meat. I had no idea what he wanted.
“It’s tomato,” Robert’s patience was now admirable.
“Thank you,” satisfied with his findings, he marched back to his table to report his findings to his wife. She was a neat looking woman with a trim grey bob and a surgical mask hanging down her right ear.
It was hard not to listen to the unfolding dialogue with the waitress. As it transpired, the couple didn’t care for olive oil or tomato or jamón on their toast, and neither did they want any marmalade. I turned my head to watch the news on the big TV, but the unfolding spectacle in front of me was too irresistible to ignore.
“I don’t want olive oil on the toast,” the old man started.
“Ok, no olive oil. Do you want butter?” the waitress was now writing down the reinvented menu.
“Hospital admissions of Covid-19 patients have doubled in the last two weeks in Spain,” the newscaster read on TV. “Since the start of the pandemic, over four million people worldwide have lost their lives to covid, of which eighty-one thousand and ninety-six in Spain.”
The waitress agreed not to serve the French patriots any olive oil; instead, they’d get butter with their toast.
“And no tomato,” they demanded. “What can we have instead?”
“Eh,” suggested the waitress. Because the letter g is usually pronounced in Spanish as English h, it’s a common pronunciation error among Spanish speakers to say eh instead of egg or doh instead of dog.
“Angela Markel reportedly shocked at the surreal devastation caused by the last week’s floods in Germany,” I heard on the left.
“Hue – vos! Hue – vos!” on my right, the frustrated waitress gave up on English and was enunciating the Spanish word for eggs.
It took another five minutes to establish how these eggs would be prepared.
“At least one hundred and eighty-four people in Germany and Belgium are now known to have died in floods,” read the voice on the left.
“Two toasts with eggs and butter?” the woman was clearly in a rush to go back behind the bar to continue serving the rest of the tables.
“No, one toast with eggs and butter,” the man said. “My wife does not like eggs or jamón.” We all assumed she did not like tomatoes either.
“Two French tourists were stabbed to death with a butter knife by an enraged hotel worker who just had enough of humanity,” I expected to hear the next day at breakfast.
Hell is other people should be the motto of the hospitality business. I admired this woman’s restraint and professional demeanour. I wondered if she went home at the end of the day, opened a bottle of wine, put her legs on the sofa, and vented to her family about idiotic French people who refuse to eat a simple Spanish breakfast when in Spain.
Would she share the tales of the moronic tourists that she had to deal with that day: “The French woman put butter on her tostada and dipped it in her coffee cup. Can you imagine! It barely fit!”
But maybe she didn’t. Maybe she had seen it all, or maybe she was more professional than I had ever been as a hotelier and did not bear grudges against her customers. I was pretty sure she wasn’t writing down her misgivings about her customers and publishing them. I watched her approach another table. This time it was a German couple. I wish I could hear how THEY wanted to reinvent the menu, but they were too far away. The breakfast room was a goldmine — an insight into modern humankind. After a week in the waitress’s shoes, I’d have enough material to write a long book, or even a philosophical treaty, about the state of the world we live in.
“Tens of thousands protest in Paris against the covid vaccination passport,” was the last thing I heard as Robert and I left the breakfast room.
I looked back. The sweet elderly couple were enjoying their breakfast which was completely different from everyone else’s in the room. Vive la liberté!
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