“I want to go abroad,” I told my husband one tropical day after we’d been living in Ghana, West Africa for what seemed like ages and I was beginning to suffer a bit of ennui. Of course, being expats at the time, we were abroad in Ghana. (My man is American and I hail from the land of Gouda cheese and windmills.) However, I wanted a change of scenery, a little excitement somewhere else abroad. Since there was no chance any time soon of getting on a plane and leaving the African continent for the sophisticated splendors of Italy or France, I suggested Togo. Now Togo is a sliver of a country just east of Ghana, a couple of hours drive away along the Atlantic coast, a former French colony. (Ghana is a former British colony.)
“Togo? And you call that going abroad?” my mate asked, eyebrows raised.
“They speak French over there. It will feel like being abroad.”
My prince rolled his eyes, and succumbed.
So one day we drove to Lome, the capital, following the busy main road that runs right along the beach. (For the record I want to report that we managed to negotiate the notorious border crossing at Aflao with our patience frayed but intact, which is not nothing.) We checked into a hotel and went in search of a seafood restaurant recommended to us. And once there I got what I’d wanted: A little excitement. Below is the story.
The restaurant is not the swishy fish place we had expected, but we find a dining room with most of the tables occupied by sophisticated-looking folks eating and drinking wine with apparent appetite. We take this to be a good sign. A number of pale-skinned foreigners are among the guests, expatriate residents probably.
The place is not cooled very well and the general appearance is somewhat shabby, but the ambiance is agréable. A nice touch is the live music, a mellow-looking African guitar player singing a sweet love song from the sixties, in English. He smiles at us as we are seated at our table, which is covered in a Mediterranean-blue cloth and set with an abundance of silverware, wine glasses and flowers.
A waiter, a man très sérieux, wants to know our drink requirements. We order a carafe of the house white. The service is attentive with European pretensions, but then this is a former French colony. To us, however, it appears a tad incongruous to see all this flair in this modest little place.
We study the menu, which offers nothing exciting, so we go for the grilled rock lobster, which in West Africa is nothing exciting. It’s tasty, though. We’re thinking maybe they’ll do something fancy and gourmet-ish with it here. Something French. Hope is a beautiful thing.
In the mean time, as we sip our wine, I study the table along the wall, set up as a shrine to African art and French wine. Or, who knows, maybe it’s a collection of juju objects purchased from the fetish market to ward of evil and attract prosperity. A carved wooden elephant laboring under a big bowl of fake fruit serves as the centerpiece. Several carvings depicting human forms hover on either side, one of them a pretty young woman with a basket on her head, naked apart from a thin strip of cloth covering a minimum of her most private anatomy. Several pottery heads, cut at the neck, don’t look too lively. A number of other funky artifacts are on display as well, and in front of all this splendor glimmers a collection of fancy wine bottles, all lying prostrate as if paying homage to the elephant god.
Our guitar player sings something about Mother Mary. “Let it be,” he croons, “let it be.” I take a contented sip of my wine and relax in my chair. This place is okay. I’m just about to open my mouth to express this thought to my mate when he makes a sudden, startled move and I see something leaping from his back down to the floor.
Something sludge-colored with a long, thin tail.
A rat. Transfixed I watch the rodent scurry into hiding under the cloth-draped altar table, on the other side of which sits the musician.
“Was that . . . ” my man asks, mildly stunned.
“Yes, a rat,” I say. I catch the eye of the guitarist and he smiles. He has seen it too. It probably ran away over his feet. “Let it be,” he sings, “let it be.”
“Where the hell did it come from?” my man asks, surveying his immediate surroundings. Behind him is a window with heavy draperies. “I heard something scrabbling around and next this thing landed on my back.”
“And you didn’t even scream,” I say, full of admiration. I take a generous swallow of the wine to fortify myself. Should we stay or leave? Then go where? Back to the hotel? Might have rats there too, more sophisticated ones who know not to show themselves to the guests.
“Think of it this way,” my hero says, “at least he wasn’t in the kitchen.”
I grimace. “No, that’s where his extended family hangs out.”
“Let it be, let it be,” sings the guitarist. And if you think I am making this up, you are wrong.
Clearly, I am in need of a Buddha moment.
To free my mind of the turmoil of my thoughts about rats, food contamination and disease.
To reclaim calm and inner peace.
The Buddha said, I’ve read, that our lives are shaped by our thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be shaped by thoughts about filthy vermin.
I breathe in and I breathe out.
I take a slow sip of cool wine.
I breathe some more.
The incident has drawn the attention of the other diners, but nobody seems impressed or runs out screaming. Our dignified waiter brings us lovely fresh bread and sweet Normandy butter. This is an excellent move on his part because good bread and butter alway
s have a calming effect on me.
What can I say? This is Africa; these things happen. One learns to be philosophical.
The troubadour has exhausted his English repertoire and is now singing French chansons about love and despair and rain outside. The waiter comes by and discreetly refills our wine glasses. I’m now beginning to feel hungry and want my lobster.
Chewing the bread, I study the naked virgin on the shrine table. She has pouty lips and perky breasts and her eyes look vacantly into the distance, as if she knows there is no hope for her, no matter how sexy she is. She’s made of wood and will never be real.
Me, I’m lucky. I’m real, and dressed even. Just look at me sit here with the love of my life smiling at me. What more can I wish for?
And the lobster arrives as if on cue. Half of a tail only, but it just about falls off the plate it is so big. And it is delicious — well prepared, if not with a lot of imagination. Then again, lobster doesn’t really need any adornments apart from lots of butter and garlic and a squish of fresh lemon.
The chanteur plucks his guitar and sings lyrically about happiness ever after while we enjoy our meal.
My mind is at rest.
The waiter hovers, fills our wine glasses, wants to know if all is well.
“Magnifique,” I tell him.
* * *
I know, last week’s post was about a dining experience as well. However, I decided that the events formed such a striking contrast, you might not be bored. Well, I hope not.
So, now I want to hear your rat stories, or other unsavory dining experiences. Please. And if you never had any, you should get out more 😉