Blessay 14: The Perfect Waiter

My experience of waiters has been neither good nor bad. For most of the time a waiter, has been, for me, a necessary but indifferent presence. Their functionality mattered much more than character or style. So long as the dishes came, the drink was poured and I didn’t have to wait too long to catch a waiter’s eye, in order to pay the bill, then I was content.

Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is famous for employing the role of the waiter to illustrate bad faith. He describes a servile waiter of the Paris left bank of the 1950’s. One whose movement ‘is quick and formal, a little too precise, a little too rapid.’ A person merely play-acting the role of bring a waiter. Such was the power of Sartre’s philosophy that it remained in my head as a lazy stereotype. There has always been a level in which I felt all waiters were existentially inauthentic. That is until last week in Spain.

On the Costa Brava I discovered ‘the perfect waiter.’ He works in a small restaurant in the Tossa de mar on the Costa Brava. I don’t know his name but I’ll call him Luis.

The restaurant had a Greek taverna feel. Simple, white washed walls, checkered-clothed tables, wooden chairs, a ceiling fan and a varnished bookcase holding bottles of wine. When I entered the only person present was a woman in her early seventies. She was seated right up against the bar. Biro in hand and flicking through the pages of a puzzle magazine. It looked as if she’d just finished her starter. She was undoubtedly a local. Like her I waited for the appearance of the waiter. It was like waiting for the actors to appear on stage.

I stared at the wine bottle arrangement. Every bottle was the same labelled red wine. Three by three by three. Dozens of them with red, green and gold foiled tops. An overhead light made the foil shine and the bottles glint. Set against their case, the wine looked proud and self-contained. A clean arrangement of good taste: hidden for a moment, by my waiter approaching me with the menu.

At first I barely registered him. Chose a set menu, and to drink a quarter carafe of white wine. Luis picked up my menu and simply said ‘perfect.’ His perfectly warm Spanish-English pronunciation was captivating. ‘Pur-fect’ His tone made me look at him. No irony, condescension or insult on his smiling face. Luis was satisfied with my choice. The cat sounding ‘Pur-fect’ encapsulated my choice and echoed inside, causing me to smile like he as smiling now. It might have been the wrong word because his English was too basic. But I was no tourist pedant. Only a charmed and hungry man.

A Russian salad arrived with a bowl of bread. Luis carefully placed it down, and encouraged me to ‘enjoy.’ His eyes unconditionally twinkled. I thanked him and he left. It wasn’t the greatest of salads but good enough. As I ate I watched Luis chatting to the puzzle woman. They were obviously old friends.

Washing down the salad with wine, I waited for the main course. It arrived exactly timed – as my gastric juices were coordinated with his waiter duties. A Catalan sausage, french fries and vegetables lay on the plate. ‘Enjoy’ was again a natural response, not a tired order. I did enjoy.

‘And for dessert we have yogurt, caramel and strawberry ice-cream.’ I went for the ice-cream and received another ‘Pur-fect.’ Again no patronization but congratulation. All was finished off with a coffee, a scented hand-towel and the bill. I left him a two euro tip and said goodbye.

I came back over three more evenings. The waiter, puzzle woman and myself were joined by an elderly Scots couple who had been visiting Tossa de mar every June for the past thirteen years. From where I sat I could watch Luis on stage with his customers.

During the hours of 7 – 8 no one else turned up. We talked. The puzzle woman had left Hungary in 1956 to come to Spain, and eventually Tossa where she managed a hotel. And I learnt from the Scotsman that he’d once worked for ICI, had gone blind in middle age and married his carer. And she spoke with the Scots confidence of a carer / wife who’d always make sure that Luis gave her husband ample french fries with his salad and Coca-Cola.

Luis joked, smiled and looked invitingly at me to join the group. This waiter had no privileged regulars. The warmth of his service was egalitarian.

At the end of my third visit Luis gave me a small glass of a non-alcoholic, herbal drink. It was made by him and tasted very good. I urged him to manufacture it. The Scottish woman issued a friendly No and ugh! to the drink idea. This was all part of a friendly ritual between Luis and his customers. You could tell he delighted in being an intuitive orchestrater. Luis kindly served and we responded. He was the instrumentista and we the instruments, waiting on each other’s response.

‘For people become waiters and heroes not by having either the fixed causal properties of objects or the functional attributes of tools, but by understanding themselves, and being understood, in socially conditioned ways as free, embodied agents.’

Taylor Carman, a contributor to A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism

That’s a very neat riposte to the Sartrean bad faith of waiters not being themselves. Whilst Luis himself would simply shrug his shoulders and authentically ask us to ‘enjoy!’


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