Finger Bowls

The sign on the bulletin board in the student union was impossible to miss. In big letters: “New York to London, returning from Paris, BOAC, Penn State students only, $200 round trip, leaving the beginning of June, returning the end of August.”

Bingo! Two hundred dollars! It was too cheap Not to go. I raced back to my apartment, called my friend Clem and said, “Get your passport ready. Call your parents. Tell them we’re going to Europe for the summer.” Of the two of us I was considered the more sophisticated, whatever that meant. Maybe because I knew my way around New York City. My parents had lived in Europe for some years so I knew something about the continent and European customs. Clem was from Kentucky. We had definite ideas about what we wanted to see and do, some of which coincided others which diverged.

I had cousins who traveled to Europe often. They were art lovers, food lovers, loved all things European and particularly French. They always had visitors from France staying at their home, many with dubious titles but who were never-the-less exotic and fun to be around. Occasionally they had friends or children of friends staying with them for longer visits and one of them was Munette. Munette came from Dijon and her family owned a hotel and restaurant which was listed in the Michelin Guide. Until that time, all I knew about Dijon was the mustard. When Clem and I planned our trip I told him we had to visit Munette and eat in her parent’s restaurant. It would be spectacular.

I wrote to Munette and a few weeks later she met Clem and me at the train station. It was our first ride in a Deux chevaux, the French car with a suspension system like a Slinky. Bouncing along, we knew immediately this was going to be tres cool. Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted with great exuberance by Madame and Monsieur, hearty handshakes and kisses on each cheek. Although I had never met them, they knew my cousins well and so by extension we were honored guests. We were shown to our room, and told when to be ready for dinner.

Dinner was splendid, the table elegant. I certainly made sure my manners were at their best not wanting Munette and her parents to think badly of me or my cousins. Clem was really impressed. Munette, Madame and Monsieur were gracious hosts and we had a lively conversation telling tales of our travels. I don’t remember everything we had for dinner, there were many courses and naturally several bottles of wine, about which I knew nothing but pretended to savor. I do remember that near the end of dinner, finger bowls of warm water with a slice of lemon were placed in front of everyone. Clem who had been following my lead with the wine tasting, the correct fork, and on just about everything else that evening, suddenly plowed ahead, picking up the bowl with his hands and drank it, remarking afterward, “Warm lemon-aide. That was really different. Tres bon.”

Monsieur, Madame and Munette looked at me in horror. They seemed to be saying, “Who is this barbarian you have brought to sully our table?” I imagined them writing to my cousins to tell them what boors we had been and my cousin’s embarrassment and regret at sending me to visit. I couldn’t reprimand Clem in front of these people. It would be humiliating, and I could see in those few moments of silence Clem was getting the idea that something had gone wrong, but he hadn’t a clue as to what. With looks darting around the table I needed a way to end this embarrassing situation, so I picked up my finger bowl, raised it to my lips and drank it also. “Oui,” I exclaimed. “C’est marveloux!” Then wiped my mouth with a flourish of my napkin and smiled broadly.

It broke the silence. And we all had a hearty laugh. What Munette and her parent’s were thinking, I’ll never know. When we left the next day Madame hugged us warmly. We thanked them profusely for their hospitality. I didn’t tell Clem about his faux pas until we were eating a BOAC in-flight meal, safely over the Atlantic.

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