The younger of the two men sitting at the little table right next to mine at the Café Louis-Philippe immediately started telling the older man about his mother. Now this man had to be close to 70 or in his 70s, so you know how old his mother must be.
« Je suis allé voir ma mère hier après-midi », he said. « Tu ne la reconnaîtrais pas. » Apparently, his poor mother's health, physical and mental, had suddenly declined. She doesn't talk any more, the man said. She just sits and stares off into the distance. When you talk to her, you don't know if she's hearing you or not.
She used to ask me for news of my brothers and sisters and all her grandchildren, he went on, but she seems to have completely lost interest in them or anything else. The other man didn't say anything, but out of the corner of my eye I could see him nodding in sad agreement and sympathy. He was well dressed in a gray shirt and a navy-blue blazer, looking fairly distinguished. The other man wore a simple gray sweater and seemed less well groomed.
The waiter came and brought me my salad and a glass of Pouilly Fumé wine. I picked it because we had just had lunch in Pouilly-sur-Loire a few days before. The salad was Belgian endives with toasted walnuts and a big chunk of blue cheese, dressed in a very brown vinaigrette. It was good. The waiter's attentions and starting to eat lunch interrupted my listening.
Both the men at the next table ordered the plat du jour, which was a big piece of onglet grillé avec frites maison — that's a hanger steak (from what I've read) with house-made French fried potatoes. I've always enjoyed onglet, which is considered to be a notch above other cuts of steak in quality and taste. I had ordered the same thing, but as part of a menu that included a starter course and a dessert.
Before taking up a new subject of conversation, the younger man concluded his story about his poor mother. He said she had suffered a fairly sudden mental decline three months ago, but that her physical condition hadn't followed the same course. He used the word « malheureusement » at that point, implying that her passing would have been preferable.
The men's next subject of conversation turned out to be Burgundy. Not the wine, but the place. The man in the blue blazer said he had just come back from spending a few days near the town of Montbard, which is just north of Dijon. Somebody he knew — a friend? a son or daughter? — had bought an old house down there and renovations were under way. The place evidently needed a lot of work, and was in an isolated setting.
The two men agreed on one point: Burgundy is a cold, damp region. It's surprising anybody would choose to go live there. That was interesting to me because Walt and I had been in Burgundy just a few days earlier, and we had driven through Montbard on our way to see the nearby Abbaye de Fontenay. And guess what — it was raining that day and we had to give up on the idea of taking a walk through the gardens at the abbey with Callie. We had even talked about the possibility of one day moving to Burgundy, maybe near Auxerre and Chablis, one day. Maybe not...
The waiter brought my steak and set a pot of mustard on the table. I ordered a small pitcher of Côtes du Rhône wine, a red, to drink with it, as had my dining companions. The onglet was a big hunk of meat, and it was very tender and delicious. I ordered it rare, and it came "dressed" with oignons confits — onions cooked slowly for a long time in wine. The frites were as good as I hoped they would be. I'm sure they were cooked in some kind of saturated oil or fat like Végétaline or coconut oil that I wouldn't want to eat very often, for health reasons, but they were tasty.
The next subject was a long discussion about a woman who was a relative, I believe, of the younger man — maybe a sister- or daughter-in-law. She wasn't someone he had chosen to have a connection with, and he really didn't like her much. He talked about her for a long time, and I sort of lost interest. His sentiment wasn't so much dislike as indifference. The restaurant had gotten more crowded and it was harder and harder to hear individual conversations. Maybe the wine was reducing my auditory focus and attention span.
The thing I remember hearing the man say about the woman in question was that while he didn't think the woman in question was malicious or disagreeable, she was just not somebody he was interested in knowing or spending time with. If I had never met her, he said, my life wouldn't be any poorer for it. I thought that was pretty blunt talk. The other man didn't say anything, as far as I can remember.
I was eating my dessert by then. I had ordered a mousse au chocolat, because it had been years since I'd had one in a restaurant. A waiter had brought the two men at the next table each an espresso and a tiny glass of some kind of eau de vie. They didn't have dessert. The brandy was on the house, I gathered. I ordered my coffee.
The men stayed for a while, and after a few minutes a different young waiter came to say hello to them, and he brought them two more glasses of brandy. He also put one down on my table, saying « comme ça il n'y a pas de jaloux... » The older man looked at me, held up his glass in a kind of toast, and said: « C'est du calvados. »