samedi, avril 03, 2004

An Evening at the Medina

I was feeling a little adventurous, which in my world is akin to the itch skydivers must feel for a little dose of life-threatening activity, so instead of heading straight home, I decided to stop by a recently re-done restaurant in the neighborhood. The tablecloth covered tables with wine glasses and candles beckoned from the street, and I was hoping to have a light bite to eat and a glass of wine to accompany my book, maybe even get into an interesting conversation with a stranger. I like talking to strangers.

I noticed the big blue and white Moroccan ashtrays on the bar, the boldly patterned banquette and the deep blue walls. They had definitely done wonders in the space, which had been formerly decorated with - no lie - fish nets with star fish stuck in them. When it was a seafood restaurant, in case you didn't get the hint. I went to the bathroom and marveled at the thoroughly modern chrome and smoky glass sink, and reveled in the thyme scented hand lotion. Definitely a good choice, I thought.

I installed myself at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. The owner, who had greeted me at the door, had exclaimed over my Chinese "take-out" bag (actually a purse) and smiled at me as I sat back down. He seemed to want to talk, so I complimented him on the renovations and decor, and asked how long it had been open, how business was doing. He came over to give me his card, and I noticed his name looked Moroccan. I introduced myself, shaking his hand.

"Penelope, nice to meet you," I said.

"Benela?" he asked.

"No, Penelope."

"Menela," he said, more assuredly.

"Non, non, Penelope, comme la femme d'Ulysse," I corrected him in French, figuring what the hell, it's going to go much faster that way.

"Ah," he exclaimed, relieved, "Penela."

"Non, non, vous savez, elle etait la femme d'Ulysse, Penelope," I said, sure it would click then.

"Jamais entendu parler d'Ulisse." Never heard of Ulysses. Then again, why would he have, if he was a lifelong restauranteur?

We talked a bit more, about what I did, how I learned French, etc. He looked at his watch and kept an eye on the cars passing outside.

"It's too bad, I'm just waiting for a taxi; I'm going to a Moroccan restaurant to celebrate a friend's birthday." He looked at me almost wistfully, as if wishing his friend had been born another day. "You're welcome to come," he added quickly.

"Which restaurant?"

"The Medina."

"Oh, I know the Medina," I said. I knew the owner gave me the creeps, how he always fixed me with an intense gaze, as if willing me his. I had stopped going there because of it.

"There will even be a French belly dancer, we've asked for her especially."

"Carole? She's my really good friend," I said, laughing.

"Then you must come."

"I don't know if I will," an image of the dark and brooding owner pulling me by the hand up to dance suddenly flashed through my head. "Whose birthday is it?"

"A friend of mine, Mehdi."

"I know Mehdi! International lawyer, Algerian?"

"You know him? Then you really have to come."

"I don't know, he didn't invite me, I wouldn't want him to feel strange if I just showed up at his party like that."

"Oh, it won't be a problem," he said, "everyone is bringing their wives or girlfriends. And the guys are always teasing me that I never have one, so I could show up with you and really give them a shock!"

"Yes, Medhi would be surprised," I replied, thinking about how we met and the strange nature of our friendship.

"C'mon, it's April 1st!" I laughed, turned to him and gave him a high five. That was all the convincing I needed. It appealed to my mischevious side.

Driving in my car to the restaurant, and in between complimenting me on my looks and my French, he told me about all his houses around the world and how he had become a restaurant owner by accident. When we stopped at a busy intersection, he pointed to an advertisement board at a bus stop on the corner.

"See over there? What do you think if I put an ad there for my restaurant?"

"It's perfect," I said, "it would catch exactly the public you're looking for. Like me, I haven't heard anything about your place and I go out all the time. I am on several event mailing lists and I read all the restaurant reviews I can. You need to advertise more."

"I pay some guy thousands of dollars a month to do publicity for me, and you haven't heard of my restaurant!" he shook his head disgustedly. "Such reviews I have gotten, I have been written up in both the local magazines, the local papers, I have been on TV, and still I don't have the customers I want. I am paying for everyone else's mistakes."

It was true, the space his restaurant was in had turned over often since the original one, and none had been as successful.

We got to the Medina, and he grumbled as I insisted on parking in a legal spot, "I don't think I have ever parked so far away from the Medina before."

"The exercise will be good for you," I replied. We were less than a block away.

We walked inside, and I drew in my breath, hoping not to see the owner first thing, but we luckily were greeted by a young waiter, and much Arabic ensued. He led us inside, and as I turned to the people already seated, I noticed the woman directly to my right, the former director for the French American Chamber of Commerce. I couldn't of course remember her name. Of course she knew mine. There are times when it is a real disadvantage to have a memorable name, you end up feeling like a schmuck for blanking on everyone else's. Next to her was Mehdi, who thankfully acted geniunely glad to see me, and suitably amused I had shown up with his friend. He introduced me to his girlfriend, whom I had already been warned looked like a plastic surgery poster girl. Indeed, her ghostly pale face peeking out from her thin straight hair looked as if it had only recently settled into its present stiffly smiling shape, like a newly cooled candle. I willed myself not to look at her breasts. I was afraid to see what color or shape they might turn out to be.

Blissfully, there was a patch of people I didn't know and most likely wouldn't talk to all night. There was no one in that group who might be trying to reconcile a former impression of me. I turned to find a cushion to sit on, and right there in front of me was the very founder of the French American Chamber of Commerce and the President of the Atlanta Toulouse Sister Society, who had brought a tour group through the plant where I worked not a month before. The poor man had tried to reach my boss for almost a year before finally succeeding. I had won a bet with him for a chicken sandwich that the tour group would not be made up of "local business leaders" but of bored Buckhead housewives who vacationed in Provence. I had to admire the man for his persistence, though, and his French was flawless. I still hadn't cashed in on the chicken sandwich. But here I was, with a complete stranger, ready to have a good time, close friends with the French electrical engineering PhD belly dancer and being scoped out by the restaurant owner, pretty sure I would have a fair share of wine and end up belly dancing myself, and pretty much resigned to tarnishing my professional image for the foreseeable future. The owner came over, grabbed both my hands and gathered me into his very tall grip. I pulled away just in time to avoid being felt up.

"Just how many people do you know? Who are you?" my 'boyfriend' asked. "I think you know more people here than I do!" I laughed and sat down on a banquette next to an older gentleman with big wide hands that squeezed mine firmly in greeting. He turned out to be the franchising area manager for some restaurant chain, and I sensed he was expecting me to be impressed. I decided it was not the moment to tell him my opinion about chains. I had not spared Mehdi, who years before, when I had tired of hearing him brag about which countries he had traveled to, setting up franchising rights for a cinnamon roll store -Cairo, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur- had been subject to me questioning,

"Doesn't it bother you at all to be such an integral part of the death of culture worldwide? I mean, I dunno about you, but I certainly don't want a fucking cinnamon bun when I'm in Beijing!"

But despite contributing to the downfall of local merchants from North Carolina to Florida, he turned out to be a great conversationalist. Later on, a distinguished older gentleman came in, and sat in between us. He had on a beautifully tailored suit and wire rimmed round glasses, and had travelled in the Sahara in his youth, telling us stories of hitching rides with reporters from LIFE magazine in their Jeeps. I found him charming and wanted to hear more of what he had to say, but my 'boyfriend', who at this point had drunk more than a bottle of wine by himself, kept rudely interrupting him and calling him "Pappy". I scowled at him and said I'd rather talk to a gentleman anyday.

The meal was served, Carole came out, and the owner pulled me up to dance. It was more than I could control, so there I was, right in front of the FACC founder, shimmying up a storm, thinking just what am I doing to my image in the French business community? At least he seemed to be enjoying it. At a certain point, you can't control being yourself, and at that moment, that was me. It reminded me of when my ex and I had invited a couple out to eat at the other, bigger, showier Moroccan restaurant in town. There, you had to eat with your hands and take off your shoes and sit on the floor. This was a bit much for the mild-mannered midwestern couple we had invited, and I offhandedly noted their discomfort, but soon was so mesmerized by the belly dancer that I hardly remembered they were there. The girl worked with my ex in the biochemistry lab of a pharmaceutical company, and this was her first time meeting me. I don't know how she had imagined me, but later he told me that when I began to wail in the middle eastern fashion and the dancer pulled me out on the floor with her, that she had turned to him and said, with a hint of disbelief,

"So, this is your wife..."

to be continued

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