Sunday, November 28, 2010

I REMEMBER - The Champagne Toast

...and visiting my sister and new brother-n-law, on a ski trip when they lived in Idaho many years ago.  They weren't able to come back to California for Christmas and so my Mother bought me a plane ticket to go visit them for the Christmas Holidays and deliver family Christmas presents.

This was the first time I had met my new brother-in-law and we were both anxious to make good first impressions.  This was 30 years ago. Before you get to end of the tale, you should know that we still speak today.

So, being a good host, my brother-in-law takes my sister and me to their favorite restaurant for dinner to celebrate the holiday season and New Year.  We ordered dinner and also a bottle of champagne just for the occasion.

Having been an apprentice Wine Steward (busboy) at the Marine World, Marriott in California, I knew a thing or two about opening wine and champagne (mostly from watching).

The restaurant was so crowded you could barely make your way to your table.  The champagne is delivered to the table and I tell the waiter that I wish to open it myself as I know what I am doing.  More than one person is watching by now and I am enjoying the spotlight.

I proclaim to my entourage that the "trick" to opening champagne safely and professionally (meaning not in the locker room after you won the Super Bowl or on the racetrack after the Daytona 500) is to engage your customer (audience by now) in conversation as you place your hand firmly around the neck of the bottle and gripping tightly, rub your hand back and forth, thereby warming up the glass neck of the champagne bottle.  This allows the cork to be released under less pressure and offers a nice "pop" instead of taking somebody's eye out across the room.

Things were going well, almost too well.  I had great confidence, although I had never "actually" done this before.  Sort of like reading a book about Olympic downhill skiing and the taking the Black Diamond run live on ESPN for your first try.

So, as you can guess, things deteriorated rapidly from my initial rush of fame.  The cork was coming out.  Fast.  Far too fast. I could not hold it back.  My Champagne bottle opening theory was turning out to be just that - theory.  I realized that in a few short seconds I was going to have a fermented grape juice Vesuvius in my face.

Did I mention that the room was packed?  Did I mention that my showmanship far exceeded my skill and I had a fairly large group of diners watching?  The look of panic and impending doom on my face caused everyone near me to back up as far as they could in the crowded area.  We all knew the Apocalypse was drawing near.

Being exposed as an obviously unskilled  wine steward, I still had a grasp of my manly warrior honor and decided to throw myself on the grenade (figuratively). The cork would no longer be contained.  It blew out despite my heroic efforts to stuff it back in. There was only a nanosecond to react.

I did the right thing.  I plunged the open top of the exploding champagne bottle into my mouth and sacrificed myself for the good of the many.  The screams around me turned to "Oh, my God" and groans.

I am not a chemist, but I did drink myself through college like most poor young students and so, was not unfamiliar with the techniques necessary to get buzzed on just a few beers, if you had no money.  This moment far exceeded any of my prior drinking experiences.  Approximately one half of the contents of the champagne bottle forced itself down my throat and into my stomach in about two seconds (probably some kind of undocumented record for power drinking).

For a fleeting moment, I once again had the favor of the awed crowd.  It wasn't the way I had intended, but since I had saved the moment in a spectacularly showy way, I was pleased with the outcome.  For a very fleeting moment.

I became aware of two sensations.  One I was very drunk.  Secondly I was going to throw up.  Violently.  If I thought the crowd around me wanted to get away when they thought they were going to get champagne sprayed on them, they were even more intent about fleeing with the possibility of spewing vomit.  My stomach was distended like a cartoon character mouthing a bicycle pump.

I was reeling drunk, totally unstable on my feet (not one of my prouder moments).  Eyes bulging, barely holding back the impending overflow, mumbling something about "I'm going to blow", I stumbled towards the front door.  Or so I thought.  Since, on a perfectly sober, clear day with all my wits about me, I have no sense of direction and thus foraged instead into the deep middle of the restaurant, where it was even more crowded.

I had this momentary vision that I was Charlton Heston and this was what it must have felt like to be Moses and part the Red Sea.  People were scattering like crazy, as best as they could with nowhere to go. 

Like the saying "That's it, there just isn't anymore", I reached the moment of no return.  I flopped onto a dining table occupied by two horrified looking people wishing themselves off the face of the earth.  Trying to express my sincere and deepest apology with my bloodshot eyes, I opened my mouth.

Oddly, I didn't throw up.  The carbonation had turned my stomach into a giant gas balloon and a belch, equal to a rock band's loudest bass note, burst forth.  Stunned, appalled, but relieved, the shocked couple ran from their table.  I felt much better.

My sister grabbed me by the  arm and guided me out the front door towards their car.  Then I threw up.  A lot.  I mumbled something about we had not gotten our dinner yet. They threw me into the car. As I thankfully proceeded to pass out in the back seat of their speeding vehicle, I thought I heard my just-met-today new brother-n-law say something to the effective that they would never be able to go there for dinner ever again, and perhaps something derogatory  about our family's ancestry.

They moved out of town soon after. Then they moved out of the state.  I am sure it was just a coincidence. However, it was years before I got their new address.

I REMEMBER...INTERNATIONAL TOILETS toilets. Yep. I was sharing the story the other night with my daughter about the benefits of living in the United States; hot water, ice cubes, showers, washing machines, etc. including toilets.

Traveling in Mexico in the early 70's, I had an apartment in Guadalajara where the bathroom was really two rooms. The first room had just the sink and the second room had the toilet and the shower. It was a great way to save some time in the morning. You could sit on the toilet and take a shower at the same time. [Side Note: the light switch, as you walked into the room, was just two wires sticking out of the wall - each had a little loop at the end and you just hooked them together to get the light to come on. Very non-OSHA.] In the two story, two block square, Grande Mercado in downtown Guadalajara, there were public toilets up on the second level. The toilets were normal, but there wasn't any toilet paper. You had to buy it from a bathroom attendent that sat there and ripped out two pages from a magazine for you for a few pesos. If you were lucky, you didn't get the extra slick pages. [side note: best sandwich ever in the marketplace was a torta de cabra [sic]...goat sandwich [the most tender part was from the cheeks of the whole goat roasted over a spit] washed down by a Dos Equis beer.

I was traveling in Paris, France in the late 70's, and was dining in a small restaurant off the beaten path and had to use the bathroom. There were stalls, but when you opened the stall door, there was no toilet at all, just a hole in the floor. Yes, I checked the other stalls; they were all that way. There were two bricks attached to the floor on either side of the hole. The trick was to place your feet on the bricks as you attended to business. When you pulled the flush handle on the wall, the floor flooded with water into the just had to make sure you were still standing on the bricks...ha. [Side Note: In my hotel room, there was a bidet in the bathroom. I used it to keep my wine cold.]

I remember as a kid, growing up in the 1950's Oklahoma, we would visit our farming relatives during the summer. One time we went over the state line into Arkansas into the Ozark mountains to visit my Great Uncle Johnny. He had about a very old cabin on some acreage in the mountains - mostly unusable, but for a young boy, it was like a old time camping trip. There was no electricity, a pump with a handle in the kitchen and the toilet was an outhouse, out the back door and up the hill a bit. It was a one-holer as they say, and a very big hole to sit on to boot. My biggest fear was that I would fall in. Very scary with big spider webs and black widows. I tried to not go to the bathroom the whole time we were there. [Side Note: when the adults wanted to tell adult stories and wanted me to leave, Uncle Johnny would hand me a rifle, a handful of shells and tell me to go squirrel hunting and come back in a couple of hours. You don't see that much anymore in suburban California.]

Last, but certainly not least, is my toilet story during my stay in Jamaica in the mid 70's. One of the places I stayed in was a room in a family's house in Negril at the north-west end of the island. Absolutely heaven on earth. The house was at the edge of town and the jungle came right up to the house. Fifteen feet from the house you would be lost in the jungle. The bathroom, like the Arkansas story, was outside, but with more class and fewer spiders. You went out the front door, up a little path, into the jungle. There was a small clearing where there were three cement walls about six feet high that semi-enclosed the toilet. When you walked around the wall to the open side, there, inside the 3/4 room, was the toilet. No ceiling, no fourth wall. Rather decadent feeling, sitting on the toilet, staring up into the sky and out into the jungle. It was beautiful, with colorful parrots, flowering vines and the jungle. When business was done, you scooped up a large coffee can full of rain water from the fifty-gallon drum next to the toilet and tossed it into the toilet to flush it.

[Side Note: I stayed with another Jamaican family just outside an area called Stawberry Fields (Forever, ala Beatles). They had a small house [hut] mostly constructed with driftwood and coca-cola signs. Right on the cliff, overlooking the ocean. A million dollar view. There was a hammock between two palm trees, overlooking the ocean, that quickly became my favorite place to hang out....and I have a picture to back it up].

By the way, the toilet was a dig-your-own in the banana orchard on the side of the hill.