Twas several nights before Christmas quite a few years ago. And all through the house, the creatures were stirring, including, presumably, the mouse. The oddly non-denominational stockings were hung by the fireplace with care, in the hopes that someone not affiliated with any religious tradition, might wander there. I stood behind the bar dispensing fortified seasonal cheer, complete in an ugly sweater vest, perfect for that time of the year.
That deep into the holidays and the cheer becomes subjective. Just ask the woman in the tangled Christmas light necklace, smudged lipstick and skewed elf hat. Or the man with the last-minute packages from the nearby mall tucked under the bar as he waded three glasses in.
I was questioning some choices I had made, the ones that got me there at that moment; that advanced degree, the trade school thing. People often say the best thing about the restaurant business is the people. They also say that’s the worst thing too. And sometimes the two just pile right on top of each other.
“Excuse me sir,” I said to one such person. “You can’t wedge yourself in between those two women.”
“Because they are together and there is no seat there,” I said.
It was into this human tide of holidayness, that a couple I’d known for years came in. If you stay in this business long enough, you build relationships that transcend the bars and restaurants you work at. I have customers I’ve known for 30 years, some from 3, 4 or even 5 bars and restaurants back.
It was a particularly poignant moment, because once, many years ago, that couple had offered me a job at their company.
“Thank you, but I am going to be a writer someday,” I told them.
That company went on to become very, very, successful and they were there that night, at my restaurant, for a company celebration.
“We just got back from Paris,” said the man. “We took some of our employees with us.”
It’s moments like those, that make you believe in fate or karma or even Christmas spirits.
I looked at the woman in the elf hat and then at the man with the packages. Sometimes you just make the wrong choices.
“That sounds wonderful,” I said.
“It was,” he replied. “Have you ever been?”
I had studied French all through school. I knew how to make mousse and crepes before I was 15, but I had never made it to France. Life will conspire against you sometimes. My later in life interests took me to Asia and South America but I had never once been to Europe.
“You should go,” my friend said, before being jostled by the guy who had pushed in between the two women.
“Especially during the Holidays,” he said.
“I’m not in a position to really do that,” I said. “Not really, and not now.”
“I’ll send you,” he replied.
People say a lot of things in bars. They make lots of promises, oaths, and plans. But I’ve learned over the years that most of these plans, promises and oaths get forgotten soon thereafter.
“That’s a nice offer,” I said, and we went on to other topics, me fully expecting never to hear of it again.
The next day I received an email from him.
“I wasn’t kidding,” he wrote. He then laid out the how, what, where and when, that could all happen. Travel and lodging to Paris, France, in early December.
I was shocked
We went back and forth a few times. I was uncomfortable accepting a gift of that magnitude, even from someone I had known for so long.
Eventually I accepted. And the next holiday season my wife and I spent part of it strolling the Champs-Élysées, sipping on mulled wine and eating roasted chestnuts, all the while practicing my high school French. I think I did Mr. Price and Miss Moller proud.
“Paris is always a good idea,” once quipped Audrey Hepburn, and she couldn’t be more right. From then on, whenever the holiday season workload is getting me down. I think of Paris, and one night, just before Christmas, some years ago, when the dream of a child grown into an adult, came true.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-Merci beaucoup doesn’t even begin to express my gratitude.
-“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and the point of life,” once opined Thomas Jefferson.
-It’s never just another day in the restaurant business.
-“We’ll always have Paris.” Humphrey Bogart might have said it, but screenwriter Howard Koch wrote it.
– Still, Paris is the second-best gift I have ever received. The best, was my daughter, born on my birthday, also in December, 27 years ago.