I don't like wine. I don't like the taste of wine and I like the smell of wine even less. Coming from someone who spent most of her teens in France you would probably find this surprising, or at the very least, rather unusual. You might think that maybe it's because I haven't tried enough wines, or have only ever consumed cheap, acrid wine. Or maybe, as someone accused me of once, it is because I have “an immature pallet” (whatever the hell that's supposed to mean!)
But I don't need this analysed. For once I know the answer. I can tell you exactly why I don't like wine and it all begins with a hello.
There are so many ways of greeting someone in France. A handshake, a kiss on the cheek, one, two, three and even four isn't uncommon. These greetings change depending on where you are in the country. One kiss on the cheek would suffice at one end of the country, less than four would be rude at the other end. It also depends on whether you are a boy greeting a girl, a girl greeting a woman, a man greeting a child... innocent daily gestures...
I stand there suddenly unsure of myself. It had seemed so appealing just moments before when I was tying the strings of my pretty white apron into a big white bow which rested gently in the small of my back. The café had fascinated me from the moment we had opened. Sparkling glasses lined the wall behind the bar, bottles of different shapes and sizes stood to attention next to them, liquids of various levels, all intoxicating, waiting to be chosen. The stainless steel beer pumps reflected my image, distorted and grotesque, like the mirrors you would find at the funfair. I was enchanted by the idea of helping my mother in the café who, reluctant at first, finally agreed, after I had refused to give her a moments peace, begging her daily.
I anticipated that it would be like playing shop when I was a child, only this time I would be allowed to use real money and serve real customers. It was, except that here, in France, you had to greet your clients. It would be rude not to and we couldn't afford to be rude to the customers.
“It's the custom” I'm told, “just the way we do things here” a hand placed in the small of my back as I'm gently but firmly pushed forward towards the table of old men.
The group of old men are all deep in discussion and have yet to notice me, quietly waiting for an opportunity to take their order;
“Now, Maurice, did you finally get your tomatoes to ripen”
“Of course! Do you take me for a novice! They are big and red and juicy”
“Ha, Tell me, did you take your wife to the fields and do things to her that would make your tomatoes blush? How else would they have turned so red!”
I gently cough to get their attention and in unison they turn, look at me and smile. They are all missing most of their teeth and the teeth that remain are brown and broken. They look at me expectantly
“Come now child, don't be rude, come closer and say hello.”
And then it dawns on me. Before I can take their order, before I can have the fun of choosing the glasses and carefully pouring their choice of tipple for the day, before I can take their money and give them their change and hope for a tip, before I can do any of this, I have to kiss each of them on the cheek... twice. So I approach them slowly. They smell of wine. Sweat and wine. All of them, without exception. And I don't just have to get close enough to serve them, I have to get close enough to kiss them on the cheek.
So I took the plunge. I held my breath and kissed the first elderly gentleman twice. He looked at me with kind blue eyes and ordered red wine. So far so good I thought to myself. Get it done quickly, just get it over and done with. The next two went much the same, both ordering red wine. One more to go and then the job would be almost done and I would be onto the best part. I lent forward but as I did he grabbed my wrist.
I could see his bony hand wrapped around my wrist. These guys may have been toothless and old, but weak they were not. They used to be farmers and since retiring would spend hours everyday in their gardens, toiling soil and chopping wood. And right now his bony muscular hand was wrapped tightly around my delicate little wrist.
I felt my breath catch in my throat, gagging at the smell of him and the fear of what he might do.
“Come here child, he said in a deep whispered tone akin to one you might imagine of a snake, do not be so very quick to run away.”
He pulled me towards him so I could kiss his cheek. His eyes, narrow and dark, never left mine.
“now hold out your hand”
As he still had hold of my arm I had no choice, slowly I uncurled my fingers.
He placed his hand over mine, so it was completely covered and left it there, and then slowly he dragged his hand the full length of mine till the tips of our fingers were touching. It sent an icy shiver down my spine and made me feel sick at the same time. He had complete control over me and there was nothing I could do. I wasn't brave enough to shout or scream and with three other elderly men sitting there watching and doing nothing, I assumed not only that I couldn’t do anything but that I shouldn't.
I realised then that there was something left in my hand. Covered in filth and barely recognisable ten centimes sat in the palm of my hand. It's value, at the time, was one penny.
I looked at the ten centimes, then at the red marks left on my wrist by his grip, then my eyes tried to find those of the other men sitting at the table but theirs refused to meet mine. And then I looked at him, I looked at him in pure bewilderment.
“That, in the palm of your hand young lady is your tip for greeting me well...remember what you are worth”