That’s the shock: All clichés are true. The years really do speed by. Life really is as short as they tell you it is. And there really is a God – so do I buy that one? If all the other clichés are true… Hell, don’t pose me that one.
–David Bowie, Beliefnet interview
Last night’s dinner. To you it might look like an everyday bowl of bò bún (Southern Vietnamese know the dish as bún thịt bò nướng chả giò). Yet nary a rice noodle (nor any kind of cereal or edible grain) has crossed my lips during the nine months I’ve been following the strict AIP protocol to keep my autoimmune disease in check. A tough fate for a white girl with a Vietnamese stomach.
So this indulgence was a milestone to be celebrated, accompanied as it was by a hand-delivered copy of Vietnam News, the first I’ve seen since I was employed as a sub-editor and writer there a decade ago. The Hanoi editors were famous for rewriting my headlines, like this subhead that they changed to “Christine Buckley stuffs her face,” insisting I was unaware that his turn of phrase was a fancy way of expressing I’d enjoyed my meal.
It is somewhat reassuring to know that although the country has changed tremendously, the paper is still churning out old standbys such as “Hanoi streets become even more confusing to residents” and “VN, Belarusian presidents seek ways to bolster economic links.”
But back to the noodles. I had some time off last week, with the vague goals of organizing my paperwork and cleaning out the closets (New Year’s resolution number 2 and 3; number one was starting this blog). But it didn’t turn out that way. First my next-door neighbor’s mom died after a long illness; while they were working out funeral arrangements I kept their daughter at my place and took her to school the next morning.
Then I got a call from my friend Huấn (a.k.a. Jean), the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant where I’d been a regular customer until I adopted the AIP, which makes eating out in France such a challenge. For the last two months we’d been meeting once a week for green tea and informal English lessons mixed with some Vietnamese conversation: today, Huấn informed me, he’d have to cancel. But could I come to his second restaurant at noon anyway?
I envisioned a ready escape from the closet-and-paperwork plan.
“Tu sais je travaille tout le temps,” he said. “But I have this childhood friend, I hadn’t seen him for too long. I woke up last weekend and I told myself, “It’s been too long since I’ve called him. I’ll do it on my day off.”
“Ưu,” I said on the other end of the phone, which meant, “Yes, I’m listening.”
“Well,” he continued, “The next day my phone rang and it was him. Only when I answered the phone, it was actually his wife, calling to say…” He paused. “To tell me he was dead.”
“Oh, God,” I said, having somehow anticipated what was coming. “I’m so sorry.”
“And now we’re going to his funeral,” Huấn continued. “It’s so true the cliché, you really have to do whatever you want to do now, because we never know when…but wait, I remember you used to be a waitress?”
“Yes,” I said, “But a long time ago. You need me to come and help out?”
“Ưu, please. Huy [his son] is in Vietnam for another week. The busboy doesn’t speak French and doesn’t know how to take orders so you’re the only one who can do it.”
An hour later, my dog was walked and back on the couch and I was learning how to use the credit card and espresso machines.
So I didn’t find that old prescription I needed for my health insurance company nor did I locate my warm winter sweaters or organize a clothes swap.
But I was reminded how hard it is to wait tables, especially when you’re the only one of three staff who speaks the language the customers speak, and the chef speaks only Vietnamese so you have to write the orders in that language even though the menu is only in French and some interplanetary form of English and the busboy from Bangladesh speaks lots of languages, none that you know, but he smiles all the time and shows you where the fish sauce is and teaches you the table numbers and helps run the bowls and chopsticks and glasses up the two flights of stairs to where the chef is in the kitchen sulking because when you first met him two years ago you didn’t respond positively to his invitations to drink rice wine and sing karaoke in Belleville.
Some of the customers are impatient because they can’t possibly imagine that this is not the way you usually spend Tuesday afternoon and you don’t have the menu or the names of the dishes and their prices committed to memory after one hour on the job. But the old Vietnamese man who orders hủ tiếu and quietly works on his calligraphy compliments you on your accent and leaves behind a shiny 50-cent piece, and Anne who introduces her granddaughter (who spends the whole time on Instagram) asks to wait for the table by the window and might have been given an extra glass of red to top off her ¼ pitcher and wash down the clay-pot fish in caramel sauce, leaves a 5-euro note, big money in a country where tips are not expected. The two women who order bò bún and drink water and pay with tickets restaurant don’t leave any extra centimes mais ce n’est pas grave, they gave you huge smiles when you told them they could smoke and drink their coffees on the terrace, and those smiles stay with you all day.
In those three hours we made 12 euros in tips, which we split between me, the busboy and the chef, and then sat down to a meal of whatever was left in the kitchen. The chef couldn’t believe it when I told him I couldn’t eat rice at the moment: what was the point of living without it?
I picked at a chicken leg with salad and nước mắm, and looked enviously at his rice with that peppery caramel sauce I’d been eyeing ever since Anne had tucked into hers. But the soy sauce they used contained gluten; it would trigger an autoimmune flare. Not an option.
Last night, T. Rex steered me to the pedestrian Rue Rollin, where Penelope, his favorite chienne, lives. Our nightly rounds tend to include a stop at the main restaurant to see how everyone is doing. Huấn waved me in…“Mỹ Nhung, what can we make you tonight? It’s on the house!” He giggled because I’d just taught him this expression the week before. He’s a quick study. And my Vietnamese name is apparently quaint enough to provoke laughter.
His wife Phượng, the stunning chef from Hanoi, peered through the opening to the kitchen and said in Vietnamese, “Don’t make her feel bad, she’s not allowed to eat anything!”
“No, It’s time to reintroduce some things now,” I said, looking at Huấn. “Life is short; tonight I want to stuff my face.”