‘Can I have…’ The waitress walks straight past me. ‘Hello!’ No, the next waiter is ignoring me as well. ‘Excuse me!’ He continues not to hear. ‘I say!’ Still no luck. The original waitress comes back my way. ‘Is there any chance…’ Apparently there isn’t, as she keeps on going, as oblivious to my raging appetite as the rest of her colleagues.
When you’re hungry, no one can see you. I’m at the window bench that this branch of a well known Thai restaurant chain seats you at if you’re attempting to have lunch on your own. And I really am on my own. There’s an empty place next to me and no one at the two large tables in front of my bench, and, yet, so far not one of the fantastically attractive staff dressed in black has come to take my order. I’m wondering just what I might have done wrong when a young man wearing an anorak and carrying a backpack walks in and sits on the seat next to me at the bench.
He reaches into the backpack and produces a German language book with a picture of Big Ben on the cover, which he carefully places on the bench before him. Next to this tourist guide he lays his mobile phone, wallet and, lastly – almost touching my chopsticks – his passport, which is Austrian. He immediately stops the waitress who has been ignoring me, and says in English heavily accented with Austrian German: ‘I would like the soup I had last time.’ ‘Soup?’ she says, in English equally heavily accented with South American Spanish.The waitress is Latino. The customer is Austrian. The restaurant is Thai. This, then, is a particularly London encounter. ‘Yes, I would like the hot soup with the beef.’ ‘All our soup is hot, sir,’ she says suspiciously, becoming aware that this new arrival could bring his own set of unique catering challenges to the table. ‘We don’t serve cold soup.’ ‘No, hot in my mouth.’ The Austrian points at his mouth and opens it.
The waitress smiles a tight, nervous smile. How, she is wondering, will this one work out? Will there be trouble with the possibly deranged Austrian in front of her? A perplexed manager is looking over now, which is good news for me as he may take my order, but perhaps not such good news for the Latino waitress. She gathers herself and tries again. ‘Do you mean,’ she asks, ‘hot with the chillies, sir?’ ‘Yes!’ yelps the Austrian. ‘As I said: hot in my mouth. When I was last here,’ he continues, ‘I had good soup.’ ‘And when was that, sir?’ asks the waitress. ‘In October.’ He pauses, before adding with almost-German precision, ‘2010.’ ‘Sorry, sir, but I have only just started here.’ ‘But they have always had soup.’ I almost shout ‘Just give me some bloody soup!’but, weakened by hunger as I am, I fear I will fall from the stool if I speak. ‘I had a soup that was having beef in and the spice and noodles,’ he says. ‘Was it the spicy beef soup with noodles, sir?’ she asks, pointing at some words on the menu that say ‘spicy beef soup with noodles’.
I let out a sigh. The Austrian looks disapproving, as if I were in his guidebook as one of the more disappointing attractions of England’s capital city. The waitress grimaces. She now has two unhappy customers on her patch. ‘Yes, it was this,’ says the Austrian. ‘I will have it.’ Relief flashes across the waitress’s face. It stays there for the briefest of moments. ‘And now,’ says the Austrian, ‘for the main course.’
And Another Thing … Other national traits to watch out for
POLISH POLISH: ‘Hang on,’ you think suspiciously, ‘why is this Pole saying “please” and “thank you”? Is he taking the piss?’ No: he’s being polite.
AMERICAN ENTHUSIASM: The day is grey, the beer is £5 a pint and the entire British economy is about to crash, and yet a man is laughing loudly and saying everything is ‘great’. Is he mad? Almost – American.
ITALIAN FLOCKING: Like migrating swallows, Italian ‘students’ will gather in the West End this summer and stay there shrieking, pouting and blocking all movement until they return to their sunny homeland in September.
KIWI KINK: You’re approached by a man/woman suggesting you might ‘come back to my place for six’. A drunk mathematician? Much worse: an aroused New Zealander.
Read about more of Michael Hodges adventures.