MAKING A FOOL OF ONESELF
Published in "The European"
I suppose most people do, from time to time. My own line is the cracking of jokes, with a perfectly straight face, to strangers whose sense of humour I had not checked out. Perhaps one should not feel all that ashamed of it; it testifies to a certain optimism, hope, trust in one's fellow human beings; but when it misfires you shrink and shrivel and grind your teeth and curse the moment you opened your big mouth and swear to never never never never never (King Lear, Act V, Scene III) do it again. The resolution lasts for about half a year, and then another irresistible temptation comes along and there you go again.
There was that sunny August afternoon at the Plaza del Sol in Madrid. The square was full of tourists, the sun shone with all its might, the air was at its hottest, and cold drinks and ice-cream sold by the gallon and the ton. Then, within something like a quarter of an hour, dark clouds gathered overhead, obscured the sun, grew black, and a second Flood poured down. The lightly clad tourists scattered under the awnings and into doorways. I took shelter in a house entrance, with my back against the closed door and a sheer wall of water in front of my nose. Sharing the shelter with me was an English family of four: a tall distinguished father, a well-groomed mother, and two teenage children, a boy and a girl. (They had exchanged a few words in Queen's English, and the father wore his hair slightly long over the ears.) "My Fair Lady" then being at the height of its popularity, I turned to the father and recited:
"The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain."
For a moment or so he seemed to be puzzled or confused. I suddenly remembered what happens when two men and a woman find themselves on a desert island. If they are Italian, one of the men kills the other. If they are Spanish, the woman kills one of the men. If they are English, nothing happens because there is no one there to introduce them. Then he said:
"Er... yes... does seem rather strange, at this time of the year, according to the guidebook."
I shrank, and stood there in miserable silence. A few minutes later, when the rain showed the first faint signs of abating, I pretended that it was all over, heaved an audible sigh of relief, strolled out, turned the corner, and immediately ducked into another entrance, soaked to the skin.
The temptation struck again on another vacation, at a Club Mediterranee, close to midnight. The tables of the outdoor bar on the beach were crowded. A gorgeous full moon shone over the mirror-smooth sea. I was seated next to a beautiful young woman who had told me that she was a teacher of literature at a Paris high school. The rock band and the singer faking mortal agony, backed by huge amplifiers and loudspeakers, were going into a frenzy and destroying the eardrums of normal human beings. Knowing that Verlaine's "Clair de lune" was in every anthology and that every teacher of literature was bound to know it by heart, I leaned towards the beautiful lady and quoted, clearly and slowly, into her ear:
"Et leur chanson se mele au clair de lune." ("And their song blends with the light of the moon.")
She gave me a blank stare and said: "Pardon?"
A few months later, I was sitting in a bar in Mykonos. (No, I am not doing it full-time. I also work in-between.) The place was full of tourists, most of them young. I had come to look upon them - a case of green grapes? - with a certain condescension. Will they reach fifty, like me, in good health? Will they find something creative and satisfying to do, or sink into public relations and advertising? Achieve a happy family life or make a mess of it?
Perched on the bar stool on my right was a slim young girl with dark hair caught at the back of her neck with a simple comb, talking fluent French with a slight English accent to a young Frenchman seated next to her. It was small talk; they seemed to be recent acquaintances who did not even know each other's names. When the girl took out a cigarette and fumbled in her bag for a light - the French boy must have been a non- smoker and the barman was somewhere else - I snapped my lighter for her.
"Merci, Monsieur," she said.
"You're welcome," I said in English, just to let her know that, should she feel like conversation in her mother tongue, I was available. She was very pretty and graceful, like a reed in a wind, but not exactly my type. I have this penchant for the plumper woman, shapely but with full breasts and hips, and I discretely scanned the room for a more suitable conquest. There were three or four of them, but all rather involved with their escorts.
The rock band ended a noisy number, put down their instruments, and retired to the back of the room for a well- deserved drink. The barman put on a cassette and a dreamy old- fashioned waltz swelled up and swirled around the room in unison with the two large fans slowly rotating under the ceiling. The floor cleared. This was another thing those youngsters were missing: the dances you had to learn so as not to step on your partner's foot; the graceful rotation; the arm around your partner's waist; the intimate conversation, with your lips against her ear and her hair warming your cheek.
The French boy had disappeared somewhere.
"Do you like waltzing?" I asked the girl, a little doubtfully.
"Yes, I do," she said, and got off her stool.
She was very good at it, and we danced through the whole cassette - mostly waltzes, with an occasional tango or a quickstep, with me leading well and few couples on the floor to bump into.
"Thank you," I said with a bow when the music stopped. "You dance very well."
"You too," she said with a little smile, as if something amused her. If her intention had been to show an older man that his generation did not have monopoly on the classic dances, she had succeeded to perfection.
By then the band was back and conversation became difficult.
"A cigarette outside?" I asked, offering her one.
We went out and sat down on the sandy beach across the narrow street, smoking our cigarettes and watching the full moon over the marvelous smooth sea. Behind us, the band was making an awful racket, with the amplifier and the loudspeakers at full blast. I smiled to myself and kept quiet. I prided myself on never repeating the same mistake twice. Instead, I asked:
"And what do you do, Christine?" (We had introduced ourselves while we danced.)
She hesitated briefly, and then said:
"I am a ballet dancer."
I buried my face in my hands and moaned. Then I slowly slipped forward onto my knees and beat my forehead on the sand. It was soft and did not do any harm.
"And I invited you to a waltz," I moaned. "And complimented you on your dancing. Oh, God, why do you keep doing these things to me?"
"Please don't take it so hard, Robert," she said. "You really are a very good dancer, cross my heart and hope to die, for a non-professional. We're on vacation here. Look at this marvelous moon and the sea. Don't let anything spoil it."
Just then, the band in the bar behind us went into real convulsions in a roaring, deafening cacophony. Christine winced, and said, with a little smile:
"Et leur chanson se mele au clair de lune."
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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