EXPAT FOODIE: WHAT TO DO ABOUT AN UNINVITED GUEST

by missfootloose on October 21, 2009 · 15 comments

in Expat foodie, Food, life abroad, Togo, West Africa

“I want to go abroad,” I told my husband one tropical day after we’d been living in Ghana, West Africa for what seemed like ages and I was beginning to suffer a bit of ennui. Of course, being expats at the time, we were abroad in Ghana. (My man is American and I hail from the land of Gouda cheese and windmills.) However, I wanted a change of scenery, a little excitement somewhere else abroad. Since there was no chance any time soon of getting on a plane and leaving the African continent for the sophisticated splendors of Italy or France, I suggested Togo. Now Togo is a sliver of a country just east of Ghana, a couple of hours drive away along the Atlantic coast, a former French colony. (Ghana is a former British colony.)

Togo? And you call that going abroad?” my mate asked, eyebrows raised.

“They speak French over there. It will feel like being abroad.”

My prince rolled his eyes, and succumbed.

So one day we drove to Lome, the capital, following the busy main road that runs right along the beach. (For the record I want to report that we managed to negotiate the notorious border crossing at Aflao with our patience frayed but intact, which is not nothing.) We checked into a hotel and went in search of a seafood restaurant recommended to us. And once there I got what I’d wanted: A little excitement. Below is the story.

Pulling in the nets at Lome beach, Togo. Photo by escalepade / CC BY-NC-SA

A VISITOR AT THE TABLE

The restaurant is not the swishy fish place we had expected, but we find a dining room with most of the tables occupied by sophisticated-looking folks eating and drinking wine with apparent appetite. We take this to be a good sign. A number of pale-skinned foreigners are among the guests, expatriate residents probably.

The place is not cooled very well and the general appearance is somewhat shabby, but the ambiance is agréable. A nice touch is the live music, a mellow-looking African guitar player singing a sweet love song from the sixties, in English. He smiles at us as we are seated at our table, which is covered in a Mediterranean-blue cloth and set with an abundance of silverware, wine glasses and flowers.

A waiter, a man très sérieux, wants to know our drink requirements. We order a carafe of the house white. The service is attentive with European pretensions, but then this is a former French colony. To us, however, it appears a tad incongruous to see all this flair in this modest little place.

We study the menu, which offers nothing exciting, so we go for the grilled rock lobster, which in West Africa is nothing exciting. It’s tasty, though. We’re thinking maybe they’ll do something fancy and gourmet-ish with it here. Something French. Hope is a beautiful thing.

In the mean time, as we sip our wine, I study the table along the wall, set up as a shrine to African art and French wine. Or, who knows, maybe it’s a collection of juju objects purchased from the fetish market to ward of evil and attract prosperity. A carved wooden elephant laboring under a big bowl of fake fruit serves as the centerpiece. Several carvings depicting human forms hover on either side, one of them a pretty young woman with a basket on her head, naked apart from a thin strip of cloth covering a minimum of her most private anatomy. Several pottery heads, cut at the neck, don’t look too lively. A number of other funky artifacts are on display as well, and in front of all this splendor glimmers a collection of fancy wine bottles, all lying prostrate as if paying homage to the elephant god.

Photo above of Lome’s fetish market by deepchi / CC BY-NC-ND

Our guitar player sings something about Mother Mary. “Let it be,” he croons, “let it be.” I take a contented sip of my wine and relax in my chair. This place is okay. I’m just about to open my mouth to express this thought to my mate when he makes a sudden, startled move and I see something leaping from his back down to the floor.

Something sludge-colored with a long, thin tail.

A rat. Transfixed I watch the rodent scurry into hiding under the cloth-draped altar table, on the other side of which sits the musician.

“Was that . . . ” my man asks, mildly stunned.

“Yes, a rat,” I say. I catch the eye of the guitarist and he smiles. He has seen it too. It probably ran away over his feet. “Let it be,” he sings, “let it be.”

“Where the hell did it come from?” my man asks, surveying his immediate surroundings. Behind him is a window with heavy draperies. “I heard something scrabbling around and next this thing landed on my back.”

“And you didn’t even scream,” I say, full of admiration. I take a generous swallow of the wine to fortify myself. Should we stay or leave? Then go where? Back to the hotel? Might have rats there too, more sophisticated ones who know not to show themselves to the guests.

“Think of it this way,” my hero says, “at least he wasn’t in the kitchen.”

I grimace. “No, that’s where his extended family hangs out.”

“Let it be, let it be,” sings the guitarist. And if you think I am making this up, you are wrong.

Photo by h.koppedelaney / CC BY-ND

Clearly, I am in need of a Buddha moment.

To free my mind of the turmoil of my thoughts about rats, food contamination and disease.

To reclaim calm and inner peace.

The Buddha said, I’ve read, that our lives are shaped by our thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be shaped by thoughts about filthy vermin.

I breathe in and I breathe out.

I take a slow sip of cool wine.

I breathe some more.

The incident has drawn the attention of the other diners, but nobody seems impressed or runs out screaming. Our dignified waiter brings us lovely fresh bread and sweet Normandy butter. This is an excellent move on his part because good bread and butter alway
s have a calming effect on me.

We stay.

What can I say? This is Africa; these things happen. One learns to be philosophical.

The troubadour has exhausted his English repertoire and is now singing French chansons about love and despair and rain outside. The waiter comes by and discreetly refills our wine glasses. I’m now beginning to feel hungry and want my lobster.

Chewing the bread, I study the naked virgin on the shrine table. She has pouty lips and perky breasts and her eyes look vacantly into the distance, as if she knows there is no hope for her, no matter how sexy she is. She’s made of wood and will never be real.

Me, I’m lucky. I’m real, and dressed even. Just look at me sit here with the love of my life smiling at me. What more can I wish for?

Okay, food.

And the lobster arrives as if on cue. Half of a tail only, but it just about falls off the plate it is so big. And it is delicious — well prepared, if not with a lot of imagination. Then again, lobster doesn’t really need any adornments apart from lots of butter and garlic and a squish of fresh lemon.

The chanteur plucks his guitar and sings lyrically about happiness ever after while we enjoy our meal.

My mind is at rest.

The waiter hovers, fills our wine glasses, wants to know if all is well.

Magnifique,” I tell him.

* * *
I know, last week’s post was about a dining experience as well. However, I decided that the events formed such a striking contrast, you might not be bored. Well, I hope not.

So, now I want to hear your rat stories, or other unsavory dining experiences. Please. And if you never had any, you should get out more 😉

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Typ0 October 24, 2009 at 1:02 pm

OMG! I totally would have shrieked and probably left. Although good lobster may have made it worth staying. LOL If you like sea food and are ever in Egypt go to Alexandria. Alex is not that interesting but they have the best seafood i’ve ever eaten.

The outdoor market we shopped at in Delhi, INA Market, always had rats scurrying hither and thither over the food. And people *still* wondered by we insisted on soaking our veggies in a bleach solution. LOL

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Marja October 24, 2009 at 7:58 pm

That is indeed impressive to not make any noise under the jump of a rat. Aaargh Loved reading it You should write a book about all your little adventures. I think I wouldn’t be brave enough for it
Een hele fijne dag en Arohanui
om het internationaal te houden

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Elizabeth Bradley October 24, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Bored! No way Jose! That was entertaining, I felt as if I were watching the two of you. ;-]

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Jungle Mom October 25, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Do you really want to hear mine???? We often ate capybera which is the world’s largest rodent, rat feet and all.

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Mary R October 26, 2009 at 10:04 pm

What a hilarious story! I also lived in Africa (in Namibia) for a few years, so I completely understand… I’m also a big believer in listening to the message of songs that happen to be playing at the same time!

Oh, I miss all those crazy days… Japan is fun and unexpected too, but not like Africa!

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Miss Footloose October 27, 2009 at 2:36 pm

@ Cairo TypO: thanks for the tip! I love good seafood, in interesting places, preferably without rats! Alexandra in Egypt, why not?

@ Marja, I’ve written the book! All I need is the little detail of finding a publisher . . 😉 Doei!

@ Elizabeth Bradley. Thank you! So after a publisher decides to publish my book, maybe they’ll make a movie!

@ Jungle Mom: Do I really want to hear your rat story? What do you think? I was COUNTING on it! You are so brave, being able to convince your brain/mind that hey, it’s just meat, right??

In Ghana (and other West African countries I suspect) they have what is called a grasscutter or bush rat, also a huge rodent that is a delicacy for the locals. Maybe they’re related, considering S.America and Africa were once connected in the dawn of time.

@ Mary R. Yes, there’s lots of fun, happiness and hilarity to be found in Africa. It’s just not on CNN or in the papers . . .

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mangotree October 27, 2009 at 3:25 pm

I liked your story, nicely written, but I would certainly not have been all that zen about it. To say that rats in restarants are part of Africa is also a bit unfair.
I certainly know that my friends in Burkina would not have found that acceptable. They are very big on hygene and would not eat in restaurants that have rats running around.

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The Stewart Report October 27, 2009 at 10:02 pm

I just have to say I was thrilled to stumble on your blog today. I was an expat kid in Lome for 13 years so this was a great little trip down memory lane. Reminded me of the night in the bush that an agouti ran across my brother who emmited a scream so girlish I wet my pants laughing. Man I miss Africa 🙂

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Miss Footloose October 28, 2009 at 12:12 am

@ Mangotree, it certainly is not my intention to make my readers think rats run around in all Africa restaurants. In my 9 years living and eating on the continent, this was the only time I saw a rat close-up in a restaurant.

@ The Stewart Report, I am happy you were entertained! Hope you’ll come back!

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LadyFi October 28, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Rats as big as cats would jump up onto the table as people ate in restaurants in poor parts of China. No one batted an eyelid – except, perhaps, to offer you a bit of fried.. yes, rat!

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Butternut Squash October 29, 2009 at 12:21 am

That was a great story! Applause, Applause.

Sometimes you really do have to consider your surroundings and go with the flow.

I haven’t had rats in my food or on my body, but I have encountered several in Thailand and in Nepal. I have had them running back and forth over my head while I wasn’t sleeping in my hut in Thailand and I have seen scores of them crawling in and out of those ‘mystical singing bowls’ as I was trying to purchase them for my business at a shop at the top of Swayambu in Kathmandu. But, I was most surprised to see rats all around the capitol building late one night in Washington, DC., real rats, not just politicians. I was with some Japanese tourists at the time who said, “Cute mice.” They were not mice! Cute? Here is the point at which you go with the cultural flow.

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Mary Witzl October 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm

We had a Norway rat in our house, in Chiba, Japan. After a month of it eluding us, we finally managed to catch it by accident on one of those horrible sticky sheets we’d put down for cockroaches. It was so cute! I felt horrible, but we could not free it, so we had to drown it.

In Tokyo, there was a great Indian restaurant that was infested with rats and mice. God knows how they got around the health code (I think there were political considerations: the owners had been in Japan since 1945), but you could clearly hear the baby rats nesting in the wall. Didn’t take away from the deliciousness of the food, however. Like you, I had to do the Buddha thing and try hard not to think about those dirty little rat feet.

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trailing grouse November 1, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Hello there! Oooh, I’m sitting alone and had to cover my mouth to not shriek!

I used to eat at a famous hoummous eaterie in Amman, Jordan. It was outside, at the end of an alley and there were often rats running along the edge of the wall on the ground. They didn’t touch me though. Had they, I don’t think I could have either remained quiet, or returned!

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Miss Footloose November 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm

@ LadyFi, now that is really gross!! 😉 Then again, it’s what you’re used to!

@ Butternut Squash, that’s quite some story! And you are right, sometimes going with the flow is what you have to do. And rats outside around the US Capital Building in Washington: Shame, shame!

@ Mary Witzl, listening to rats nesting in the walls of a restaurant, well, that might take a bit of Zen to overcome… Great story!

@ Trailing Grouse, rats in Aman, Jordan — now I think we’ve covered most of the world in the comments here! I think they’re with us, like it or not.

Everybody, thanks for your great and gruesome tales!

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BPOTW November 2, 2009 at 6:49 am

Oh, dear! It will take a while to think of a story…at least, after that gruesome tale!

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