It’s amazing how overmatched some people seem while traveling. You’d expect that those you run into in a place like Morocco have a certain travel competence, or at least awareness, about them. Which is why it’s shocking when you meet someone you feel would have a nervous breakdown trying to make a commuter rail transfer at Secaucus.
There’s a sixty-ish American woman at a table across from me, with a young Moroccan boy and, presumably, the boy’s mother. The American, sporting a pink “Jeep World Tours” baseball cap and grandma jeans with rhinestones in the cuffs, rolled up mid-calf, speaks no French or Arabic. That’s an understatement. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anyone who spoke so exclusively English. Mother and son, meanwhile, speak almost none. This fact, however, seems lost on – I’m going to call her Louise. Instead, she speaks to them as if they’re simply hard-of-hearing. “What is this?” She points at the menu. “Veal? Veal… VEAL? Veal? Oh, beef.” The boy looks my way and rolls his eyes. “Ça va?” I ask. Clearly not. His mother looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. Meanwhile, Louise is snapping pictures of the unremarkable doorway and a wall clock you could find at a Target. I can see from here the camera is crooked.
I cannot imagine the scenario that’s brought these three together. Louise mustn’t be alone here; I’m guessing her husband is back at the hotel enjoying a respite from her unrelenting repetition: “Sea salt? Sea salt… sea salt? S-E-A,” drawing the letters with her finger on the table, “salt from water? From big water? Yes? Sea salt.” But the Moroccans? Surely the woman’s not Louise’s daughter-in-law, though the resigned look in her eyes does seem to suggest she won’t soon be emancipated from Louise’s lecturing. “Ah, French fries,” she exclaims when the waiter brings out a plate. “Very bad,” she says, putting two in her mouth. “But very good,” she adds, profoundly. The woman chooses not to hear. I can just barely stop myself from asking what their deal is.
Louise is trying to pay the bill now, for all three, which means at the very least the woman is not her guide. There’s an extra charge she didn’t expect. “For the chips,” the waiter explains.
“Tips?” Louise asks.
“No, chips… chips.” Surely Louise has heard of fish and chips? The woman, meanwhile, has picked up the plate the fries were on and is pointing at it.
“Frites!” The man tries the French word. Louise just shakes her head.
“The French fries!” I blurt out. I can only take so much.
“Oh, French fries. Thank you.”
And then, somehow, proudly, “I’m an American.”
Shhhh, Louise. People can hear you.