By Darrel Bristow-Bovey.
I wouldn’t choose to travel overseas with me. It’s not that I’m a cheapskate – actually, no, it’s precisely that I’m a cheapskate. I have ruined more foreign meals than an old man with an accordion wandering from table to table in an Italian restaurant. I sit and scowl at the menu, I purse my lips and make mental conversions into rands, I snarl at wine waiters and start suggesting to my wife that we share the main course. I am well aware that these are not attractive qualities but I can’t help it and it’s too late for me to change.
We were on Sipan island in the Elafiti archipelago, just off the coast of Croatia. The night before we’d been in Dubrovnik and had eaten at a restaurant whose name I have expunged from my memory because when the bill arrived I think I experienced a small stroke.
“How can a fish be so expensive,” I’d gasped in a strangled voice. “The sea is right over there! It couldn’t have traveled more than twenty metres. And look! They’ve charged us for the nuts! I didn’t want the nuts! They were just there on the table! I don’t even like nuts!”
I’d paid the bill but I’d more or less decided not to eat again for the rest of the trip.
That morning we’d caught the ferry to Sipan and the small bay-village of Sipanska Luka. Our pension was beside the harbor and it was very pretty but I couldn’t enjoy myself because I knew that soon it would be midday and then my wife would start expecting lunch. I have tried teaching her oriental techniques of appetite-suppression (“Every half or so, strike yourself violently in the stomach”), but what can you do with someone who doesn’t want to learn?
I had stolen some breadrolls from breakfast but she wasn’t interested. “There’s a restaurant right there,” she said, pointing to a small concrete platform that jutted out into the sea. It had five or six tables and a blue awning and there were no walls and appeared to have no name.
“The closer you are to the water, the more you have to pay,” I snarled.
There was no one else there except a grumpy man leaning on a railing and staring at the sea. He looked at us and grunted.
“What’s this place called?” I asked him. He shrugged. His name was Marco. This was his place.
I asked for the menu. Marco glared.
“If you want menu, this is not the place for you.”
“Then how …?”
“You sit! Be quiet! I bring you food!”
He stomped away.
“This is great!” said my wife.
“This is terrible,” I said. “I can’t see the prices.”
Marco returned with strips of fresh seared tuna with fine slices of red onion and fresh anchovies and capers and rocket picked from his garden. We ate it, making wide eyes at each other. It was good. I wondered how much it would cost.
Wine? No wine list. He brought unmarked carafes of something so perfectly cold and dry and delicious and bright it was like swallowing sunlight.
Then he returned with more food.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t have any more …” I said.
“Eat!” he yelled.
We ate. It was a delicate risotto with mussels and prawns, squeezed with lemons plucked on the way to the table. It was marvelous. Marco is an artist.
“It doesn’t matter how much it costs,” my wife whispered. The food was so good that for half a minute I almost agreed,
He returned with octopus with chili and garlic. If fish was so expensive, how much would octopus be? Do they charge by the leg?
“I don’t eat octopus,” I protested weakly.
“You eat the octopus!” bellowed Marco. I ate the octopus. The octopus was delicious, but I was afraid. Could my credit card even handle this?
“I have to stop him before he brings us anything else,” I whispered.
“Let’s just see what the next course is,” she whispered back.
He brought steaks of a beautifully grilled fish, wrapped in herbs.
“What fish is this?”
“Never mind what. Eat!”
We ate. It was so good.
We had been there for hours and hours all through the bright afternoon. The sun was starting to set and the green shadows from the hills were creeping across the bay. Marco was getting ready to bring something else.
“Please,” I said, “we can’t. It’s not the money – we just can’t manage any more food.”
“We can’t,” agreed my wife. She was crying a little because the food was so good that she wished she could still find room to eat more. I was crying a little because now it was time to pay.
Marco frowned at us when I asked for the bill. Bill? What does the bill matter to an artist? He shrugged, waved his hand, sighed, shook his head, made some inscrutable calculation in his head, then almost grudgingly named a figure.
We blinked at him. What? That was less than a couple of family-sized pizzas back home.
“Are you sure?” said my wife.
“Yes,” I said, surprising even myself. “Are you sure?”
Marco growled and walked away and didn’t come back to collect the money. We left it on the table and staggered away in the dusk. I was as happy as I have ever been in my life.
“The best part,” I said to my wife, “is now we don’t even have to have supper.”