“What’s that?” said Ron, pointing at a large dish of some sort of shellfish stew that stood beside a large steak-and-kidney pudding.
“Bouillabaisse,” said Hermione.
“Bless you,” said Ron.
“It’s French,” said Hermione.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
As my habitual readers know, I am not keen on celebrating special days. I figure that life has been good to me. Every day feels like a special day. I see no reason to build an exclusive place in my heart for a certain day: it has not done anything to deserve praise, yet. I prefer to wait and see if it deserves to be called “special.”
This stubborn antisocial attitude often brings me into conflict with normal people. You know them: the kind that think that Christmas should be a holiday, and that anyone who has been strong and lucky enough to survive another year deserves to be congratulated, and to have a small celebration.
Yet I remain ensconced in my impersonation of a grouch. Twice I have forgotten my wife’s birthday. Which says something about her, because most men would not survive forgetting one special day, let alone two. It says a lot more about me: I am so clueless that I did not take any special measures after penalty #1 to prevent getting called for #2.
Today I want to tell you about one of our wedding anniversaries. Birthdays and anniversaries carry a burden that most holidays do not: they often fall on a workday. Most Americans are too success-oriented to take a day off for their birthdays. In the rare instances where a company offers you a paid holiday on the day you were born, many people choose to “bank” this paid day off so that they can add a day to their vacation allotment.
Doctors make enough money that no employer thinks that they deserve a paid day off. If they are self-employed, they are concerned about covering rent, payroll, and malpractice insurance. No way that they will take a day off to celebrate that they are getting older, which usually serves to remind them that they are fatter, have less hair, and are getting closer to the time when they will have their first major heart attack. What is there to celebrate?
I was one of these animals. As satisfied as I was, on most days, that I had made the right marital choice, I did not feel that I should be congratulated for helping my marriage survive. Still and all, I always felt that maybe Phyllis deserved a bit of recognition, so we usually did something out of the ordinary to celebrate Bastille day, our anniversary.
Until years passed. The time came when I asked Phyllis, on July 12, if we should go out to dinner for our anniversary.
“I don’t care. You decide.”
Scary words. Because maybe she really does not care, in which case any decision that I make will be acceptable. But she could also be saying that indeed she feels like celebrating, and how could I be so insensitive to even question if we need to go out. If you are young maybe you do not read this much meaning into a simple sentence. You have a lot to learn.
I decided that it would be safer to go out on the 14th. It was a weekday, and things got busy at the office, and I forgot to call anywhere for reservations. I was not too worried, because everyone knows that nobody goes out for dinner on weekdays. For sure our favorite places would have space to spare.
I got home late. I was exhausted, and hungry. I plopped into a living room chair.
“You look tired. I can make something; we don’t need to go out.”
A reasonable proposal. Deep inside, I suspected that this was another trap.
Of course not. We should celebrate. We will go out.
“Do we have reservations?”
No need. It will be fine.
It was not. Our favorite places were packed. Maybe there was a huge convention going on: the thing is, we went to three places that told us it would not be worth our time to wait. By the time choice #4 drove us away, I was famished, tired, embarrassed, and it was way past closing time for most of the nicer places.
“We could go home. I can fix something.”
We will find a place. I can handle this.
By sheer coincidence, while walking to choice #5, we passed a French restaurant that we had not heard of. I opened the door halfway: it was half empty. I flung the door open and asked Phyllis to walk in.
“Do you know this place?”
I have heard good things.
Strictly speaking, that was not a lie. I hear good things every day.
An elegant middle-aged woman welcomed us. Her hair was exquisitely done; she had little makeup on; she wore a long beige gown that fit her to perfection. She had a French accent. I was sold.
Dinner for two?
“Mais oui. This way, please.”
Beautiful, small establishment. Nice table. Comfortable chairs. Menus long enough that you could use them to cover your anatomy if, for any crazy reason, your clothes caught on fire.
We ordered drinks. Phyllis asked for the veal; I ordered duck. I hasten to add that the words “veal” and “duck” were clearly printed on the menu. We did not recognize any of the other verbs that were used to describe our choices.
A half hour passed. Now I was really hungry. I could sense that my ever-patient wife was reaching the end of her kindness supply.
Our elegant hostess finally showed up with our food. Each one of us was served a plate with three small pieces of meat: about three inches in diameter each. The rest of the plate was taken up by beautiful swirls of finely matched colors.
“They don’t give you much.”
It is French. It is all about quality.
I tried to exude confidence, but I was a bit concerned. There were no bones attached to my duck. Far be it from me to call myself a cooking expert, but every other time that I had ever ordered duck, there was a bone attached to my meat. Phyllis’s meat had no bones attached to it either, but for inexplicable reasons (starvation?) I figured that maybe our nice hostess had our orders mixed up.
I asked Phyllis to trade plates. I took a small bite of her meat: it was veal.
We traded plates again.
Our hostess noticed the musical chairs game being played at her fancy digs. She hurried over.
“Is there a problem?”
I love the way the French pronounce the “r” when it is placed next to another consonant.
Not at all. I just thought the duck would have a bone.
She smiled. A bit condescendingly, I thought.
“Mais non! Our chef starts out by pressuring the meat…”
I did not want to hear any more, but I did. I picked up my fork.
“If you do not like it, I can get you something else.”
No; this is good. I like the taste.
“We have an excellent beef choice tonight.”
It is OK. I will keep the duck. It is late; we are hungry.
“Here, let me get you something else.”
She reached for my plate with both of her hands.
LEAVE MY DUCK ALONE!
Said louder that I wanted it to come out. A couple of our fellow diners looked over. Our hostess beat a hasty retreat.
The duck was good. The veal was good. We were still famished when we were done with our meals. We were too tired to wait for dessert. We asked for the check. Again, for reasons that I still do not understand, we left a substantial tip.
My loving, supremely patient, incredibly tolerant wife broke out in laughter as soon as we were out of the place.
“Happy anniversary, dear.”
It is not funny.
“It is so, and some day you will know it.”
Many years later, I am ready to accept her wisdom. It was funny. Comedy happens when disaster strikes someone else. We find it difficult to laugh at ourselves. It takes years of retrospection before we are willing to accept our humorous failures.
Today is the day. I smiled as I wrote this.
We no longer celebrate anniversaries, or birthdays, or New Year’s. We live in constant appreciation of how much we have, and how lucky we have been. We would not have it any other way, French duck and all.