Sure I learned French for three years and actually passed my junior high exams. In those days there was no oral test, so my accent must have been atrocious. But if I am anything I am adventurous, so aboard the Paul Gauguin in December 1999, where crew members were French, practice time came again, the first since 1972. (see ‘Parlay Voo Fronsay’, posted May 11, 2010)
For such a small ship, MV Paul Gauguin offered a wonderful choice of cuisine, with three restaurants, one exclusively French, so that is where we ate. Entertainer Ian Cooper, violinist enfant terrible and his barrister wife Kellie were funny and sophisticated dinner companions to myself, the irascible Milton ‘garden gnome’ Saunders and Monsieur Laurie Bennett who, for the duration of the Millennium Cruise around the islands of Tahiti, insisted he was French and pronounced his name ‘Bennay’.
So our evening meals were long drawn out affairs with repartee and laughter, lubricated with oodles of free Coonawarra Cabernet. (We drank the entire stock of Coonawarra over the almost three weeks of the cruise, the purpose of which was to be right on the International Date Line at midnight December 31 so we were the ‘first to enter the new millennium’). For that dubious privilege, almost three hundred Americans shelled out a reported fifty thou a berth, mais apres tout, we were there all expenses paid and were denied nothing in return for playing a few leisurely two hour shows! (We were worth every penny!)
However, as is not unusual, I made a goose of myself. I had decided early on to go through the menu from top to bottom and try every dish. I have eaten kangaroo, crocodile, emu, rabbit, wild duck, witchetty grub and in Timor I once ordered Kambing, but swear I was served Anging. It tasted a bit strong as expected and was defintiely preferrable to witchetties, but I say it was probably dog on the (admittedly circumstantial) evidence of one observation.
Awoken at 4am by a scratchy tape of a mullah calling his flock to morning prayers while he snored on, I dressed and walked outside the Soe, (pronounced so-eh) Hotel. There in the gloom was a kitchen wallah carrying a carcase. I asked him what it was and he answered ‘anging’. Dogs are to Timor what cows are to India, except there is nothing sacred about the yellow curs harvested from town dumps. But I digress.
Towards the end of our Tahiti adventure, the highlight of which was a three day festival of song and dance on a mountain peak amphitheatre, where young men and women display their bodies and skills in a colourful, noisy and anarchic traditional ritual, during which mates are chosen and marriages organised, I was nearing the end of my menu cracking odyssey. There remained only one untried dish, so I gave the pronunciation my best shot and ordered. I did note Kellie’s raised eyebrow and in retrospect should have realised I had gone too far when the waiter, a cheeky Gallic charmer, laughed as he recorded my naiveté in his order book, no doubt adding in his mirth-effected scrawl; ‘Australien idiot’.
Anyone who saw Mr Bean take himself to a posh restaurant for his pathetic birthday 'bash' will know what is coming but in my hubris, although I did see that episode, I missed the connection as did everyone except le smartarse garcon. Later, during confession, Kellie said she had admired my savoir faire as, in my improving accent, I ordered 'Boef à l'Americaine'. When the dish arrived Milton went close to throwing up and Laurie had to leave for a ‘breath of fresh air’ but I was stuck with no option but reluctant heroism.
Eventually the bottom of the dish revealed no clown face or printed ‘gotcha!’ But the real joker, the head waiter appeared by my side and smugly offered seconds.
I had succeeded in eating the disgusting mess by applying immaculate self control and kept it down with dogged determination, but like any sane mountain climber, one Everest is enough and I declined politely, while coming ever so close to advising him to ‘fuck off, you supercilious bastard!’
Mr Bean was able to secrete his ignorance in sugar bowls, vases, ash trays, under place mats and even managed to deposit some in the purse of an adjacent diner, but with cheating impossible under the unwavering surveillance of our eagle eyed barrister, I ate every last morsel of what an English menu would have listed as ‘Steak Tartare’. Minced steak with raw egg and diced onion, served raw and running with blood!