July 02, 2004

A Quality Interaction

Most expats I've met seem to have a story or two about their strangest interactions with the wacky German people. Dave has people telling him that his dog is "too shiny". During my first stay in Hamburg, I met Valerie, a woman in my German class, who routinely had total strangers walk up to her and begin criticizing whatever she was doing at the time. (Highlights included the old man who patiently waited on the sidewalk as she parked her car, in order to tell her once she got out that she'd parked too far away from the curb and the car in front of her, or the woman who walked up to her in the market as she was shopping with her children and lectured her about how it was wrong to give children such sugary snacks and that a good mother wouldn't feed her child junk food!)

My interactions, on the other hand, have been pretty routine (I'm not counting occasional talks with the drunk homeless guys who hang around certain S-Bahn stations; they're like that to everybody). But a few days ago, I finally had a conversation that took the cake.

The ground floor of our building used to host Valentino's, a restaurant and (on the weekends) dance club. Valentino's closed mysteriously around the middle of April. They removed the signs from the front of the building, but otherwise left the premises undisturbed; you can peek in through the front windows and see the tables set, napkins neatly folded on each plate. Shelby and I find it kind of creepy and sad.

The one sign they didn't remove is the box that contains the menu; since the view through the windows looks like that of an establishment that's still a going concern, we usually walk past one or two people a day who are carefully studying the menu -- probably making plans to come back at night, when the place will no doubt be open for business. One such man was standing there as I was walking back to the apartment. I walk past him, and am about to walk into the building, when I hear him calling for me to wait. So I turn around and walk back to meet him on the sidewalk.

"Excuse me, is there a restaurant here -- Valentino's?"
"This was Valentino's, but it's been closed since the middle of April."
"The middle of April! Was it just a restaurant, or was it a nightclub, or a club with dancing, or ...?"
"Well, on the weekends it was a dance club; during the week, it was a normal restaurant."
"Was it a good restaurant?"
"Yes; we ate there once and liked it."
"I see. And it's been closed since April?"
"Hmm! Closed since April! Well, thank you very much for that very helpful information."

Thinking that's that, I go upstairs, let Scout out of her crate, and bring her downstairs. We're lingering around the trees in front of the building when a woman who's been reading the menu board and looking through the windows comes up to us.

"You just talked to my husband, and he said that you told him that the restaurant here -- Valentino's -- had been closed since the middle of April."
"Yes, that's right ..."
"Was it a good restaurant?"
"We only visited once, but we thought it was very good."
"Why did it close, then?"
"I have no idea -- it was a mystery. One day we came downstairs, and it was just closed! They had a good location -- between the U-Bahn station and the music hall -- and they had good food, but it was always empty."
"Ah. Well, thank you."

Figuring that was really that, I walked up the street a little bit, staring up at nothing as Scout continued to sniff the neighborhood trees. Then I hear shouting behind me. It's the man again, trying to get my attention. First he makes a cursory glance at Scout.

"Handsome dog! Nice dog. Say, you just came out of the same building as Valentino's -- is there a hotel or something in there? Was the restaurant part of the hotel?"
"No, we live in an apartment -- the building just has normal apartments, and some offices."
"Ah. It's too bad that Valentino's has been closed since April; we're visiting from out of town" -- at this point he waved a hand back at his car, which had Hamburg license plates -- "and our Hamburg friends really recommended that we go to Valentino's. But ..."

And that was when he finally lost me, speaking too fast and furious for me to understand -- but the gist seemed to be about the great unfairness of the restaurant being closed, and how disappointed his friends would be, but why did they recommend this restaurant if it had been closed for months, and if it was so good, why did it close in April, and ... -- he went on for a while, and once he finally paused in his diatribe, I made a knowing shrug, looking skyward with a sad little smile, meant to communicate What can I do? We are but men -- the waxing and waning of a restaurant's fortunes is in the hands of the gods, and only they know in their infinite wisdom why a particular establishment is fated to wither and die ... and PLEASE DEAR GOD IT'S ONLY A RESTAURANT JUST LET IT GO ALREADY AND SHUT UP AND GET AWAY FROM ME!!!

I must have beamed my thoughts towards him with sufficient intensity, because with that, he clapped me on the back, said "Well, thanks again for your help", and turned back towards his car. Scout and I fled inside before he could change his mind and quiz me about Valentino's for a fourth time.

Who were these people? Elite restauranteurs scouting out a new location and trying to figure out why the previous business died? Deep-cover CIA agents who made an appointment ten years ago to meet their handler for dinner at Valentino's, and are now freaking out because it's closed?

Posted by Kevin at July 2, 2004 08:27 AM

Can you imagine the interaction between the two of them? You know they went home and blamed you for the restaurant closing. Like "they live in the building and they only went there once?" "Maybe it's a hotel." "No, it's not I asked him!" "And what did he say?" "He said it's not a hotel." "Well maybe they should put on there. It would help keep the restaurant in business."

Posted by: Dave at July 2, 2004 05:45 PM
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