From Our Pages: “Prix Fixe: the table next to yours,” by Thomas E. Kennedy.
Strangers share Christmas dinner in a Copenhagen restaurant.
“You hope you don’t look too much like a lonely old guy … There are good astri over this night, and the ruby is the most powerful gem in the universe.”
Thomas E. Kennedy is an American expat who has lived in Copenhagen for more than thirty years. He has published hundreds of essays, stories, and interviews, as well as almost forty books. His latest are the third and fourth novels in The Copenhagen Quartet series: Kerrigan in Copenhagen (2013) and Beneath the Neon Egg (2014). His work has been honored with Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry Prize,and a National Magazine Award for the essay. In 2016, he was the first American to win Denmark’s prestigious Dan Turèll Medal.
This essay, “Prix Fixe — the table next to yours,” was published in our second issue, themed “Hunt, Gather.” In the spirit of holiday hygge, we offer it to those who dine alone on Christmas, and those who find new friends.
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Six p.m., Christmas Eve, Juleaften, and you say to the young, dark-bearded waiter at the Copenhagen Plaza Grill, “I have a reservation. For one.”
The young man gestures to a small table with a single setting, just alongside a table of the same size set for two. He tilts his head pleasantly, but you see an edge to his smile — of what? Pity?
You thank him and sit, smiling around the dining room because you feel conspicuously alone. There are three women — no, two women and a long-haired elderly man — off ahead, speaking Swedish. Across from them are an even more elderly Danish couple, strangers apparently, with whom they are toasting: “Glædelig jul!” Merry Christmas. The table behind you seats eight and seems to be occupied by a mix of Frenchmen or Belgians and Americans, maybe Canadians, speaking both French and English by turn. Makes you think of your Irish-American father and French-American mother, both long gone.
An orphan in his late sixties, you think wryly, looking at your hands, your father’s onyx-and-gold pinky ring worn on your right ring finger.
The repertoire on the sound system, you notice, seems to be limited to a kind of reggae number in which people sing over and over about Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ, being born in Bethlehem. Every time you pay attention, the song has begun again, which colors the evening with a tint of Groundhog Day.
The waiter angles the label of a wine bottle in front of you: Alsatian, J. B. Becker. “Riesling?” he asks.
The sound of wine chuckling into your glass is cozy — hyggelig, as the Danes say. It is important to have hygge — coziness — on Juleaften.
It was too dreary to stay home watching a DVD or reading. Your ex, who is hosting your and her grown children and families, has not invited you. December 24 is the main evening of celebrating Yule for Danes, and there are only a couple of restaurants in Copenhagen open today — mostly for foreigners stranded, by chance or choice, in the Danish capital. Originally, you reserved for two here in this Victorian-style place — dark leather and shelves of old books — across from the Central Station, but your sometimes-girlfriend who was to dine with you this evening canceled for a last-minute invitation from her daughter. And you know that Rilke has sealed your fate with his poem: Whoever has no house now will never have one. Whoever is alone … will wander the boulevards, up and down, restlessly.
You will not lie down to that lonely fate; you will hunt, you will gather what you might of Yule cheer, or die trying. So you have showered and shaved, splashed your jowls with Acqua di Giò, donned your three-button, olive-green Italian corduroy suit, a crisply laundered shirt, your MOMA blue-and-beige silk necktie, and your beaming, polished wingtips. In honor of the evening, you have even worn your father’s gold wristwatch, which your sometimes-girlfriend fitted with an alligator band a Christmas ago. You thought to slip some notepaper into your inner breast pocket and clip your Montblanc there, too, to busy yourself taking notes about the food if you feel called upon to hide your face at some point.
No one has yet met your eye, but you maintain what you hope is a pleasant half-smile behind your bushy, freshly waxed mustache and point your face around, hoping you don’t look too much like a lonely old guy. At least you’ve lost ten pounds so you’re trimmer; your pants are not so snug.
A tall, slender young woman in a clinging, low-cut black dress enters. She speaks to the waiter, who shows her to the table beside yours and holds her chair while she sits opposite you, one table removed.
“God aften,” you say in Danish. “Glædelig jul.”
Then, in case she’s not Danish, you repeat, ”Good evening. Merry Christmas.”
The young woman smiles. She has long, straight black hair, and a ruby on a thin gold chain dangles in the midst of her cleavage. Maybe it is a costume ruby, you think, but false or real, it still has the most enviable place in the dining room.
“Are you alone?” you ask, without any thought as to what you might say if she answers yes. She is much too young, but she might enjoy the company of an elderly gentlemen, just for dinner.
She smiles and says in English, “I am waiting for one person.”
An orphan in his late sixties, you think wryly, looking at your hands, your father’s onyx-and-gold pinky ring worn on your right ring finger.
Of course, you think. No doubt some young cavalier whose eyes will be treated to the ruby dangling in her kavalergang — Danish for cleavage, literally “cavalier passage.” You detected some kind of accent when she spoke. Perhaps Swedish.
“Have you noticed that song keeps playing over and over?” you say.
Her smile is pleasant, though — you think — slightly distant. “I do no hear the music before,” she says.
You get the message: I vant to be alone.
You sip your Riesling. The menu is prix fixe this evening, wine included: fried herring with a poached egg as a starter; roast duck leg and candied potatoes for the entrée with Pinot Noir; rice pudding with white chocolate and blackberry sauce, port wine for dessert. In between the starter and the entrée, they will serve a mint sorbet as a ganerenser — to freshen the palate.
You signal the waiter and nod at your empty glass.
He pours with no argument. A good sign. You notice the starters being lined up on a serving counter just as another woman, blond, in a fuzzy white sweater and close-fitting black slacks, enters.
The ruby-adorned girl lifts her hand to the blond woman, who then takes the chair across from her. You cannot see the newcomer without looking directly, and you think that would be impolite. You nod obliquely to her, mutter, “Merry Christmas,” cautioning yourself not to celebrate the good fortune of two lovely women seated beside you just yet. They might freeze an old coot like you out. Anyway, you do not want to force yourself on them.
The waiter serves the stegte sennepsild, herring warm and fried in mustard on triangles of dark rye bread. It mixes deliciously with the smilende æg, poached egg, and the vinaigrette salad of walnuts, delightfully sour giant capers, diced red beets, and red onion — rødbeder and rødløg. Moreover, the waiter offers more Riesling, which you accept with a smile that emanates from the pleasure of your palate.
You try to identify the language that the two women are speaking. It is not Swedish. At first you think Russian, but it sounds more Eastern or Central European.
When they have finished their appetizers, you lean discreetly toward them and say, “May I ask what language it is that you’re speaking?” and the younger woman says, “Slovakian.”
“Ah!” you exclaim, and take the opportunity to include the other woman in your glance. She smiles and meets your eyes. Hers are pale blue, her face pretty. Perhaps Ruby’s older sister?
You are trying to remember just where Slovakia is. At first you think of Slovenia or the country just to its south — what is it called? No, that’s Croatia. Ah, Slovakia is Central European, formed of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into two republics after 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
“Slovakia is a member of the European Union now, isn’t it?” you ask. “Are you on the euro yet?”
“Yes,” says the blond woman. “Since four years.”
“Do you find the Danish krone confusing?”
She laughs and meets your eye. “A lit-tle,” she says. “You are Danish?”
“Actually, American, but I’ve lived half my life here. Raised in New York. City.”
“Oh!” She cups her chin in her palm and leans closer. “New York City! Why ever did you leave there?”
“I prefer it here. You can walk everywhere and don’t have to pay for health insurance. And I like the food, too.” And the women, you don’t add, to avoid unseemliness. “And the literature.”
The waiter begins serving the mint sorbet now, and the women look confused.
“It’s sorbet,” you explain. “A little like ice cream, but lighter. Made with water. To cleanse the palate after the mustard herring.” And you try to think of something else to keep the conversation going — but then think perhaps you are intruding too much.
“I like the food.” And the women, you don’t add, to avoid unseemliness. “And the literature.”
“Actually,” the dark-haired woman says with a smile that seems purely innocent, “when we speak Slovakian before, we was talking of you.”
“Yes. We think it is noble how you have dress up and come here although you do not have wife.”
Your smile assumes a bit of purely formal sadness. “I’m divorced, alas,” you say.
“I, too,” says the blond woman. “This must to happen sometimes.”
“I am exchange student in Copenhagen,” the younger woman says. “I study the business.” She gestures toward the blond. “My mother is visiting, and I invite her to dinner. We do not wish to prepare food this night.”
For a moment you consider romantic possibilities with the mother — impractical. Anyway, you have a sometimes-girlfriend. But the thought is nice to toy with.
You notice the daughter wears earrings that match the ruby-colored pendant and say, “What beautiful earrings,” thinking the stones dangling from her earlobes are safer to admire.
“They are from my mother, for Christmas,” says the girl. “They were my grandmother’s.”
“The ruby is the most powerful gem in the universe,” the mother says. “It is filled with love.”
And suddenly comes the konfiteret andelår, traditional duck leg, with baked apple, grilled chicory, red onion, prunes, a kind of delicate white potato cake , as well as sugar-glazed, browned new potatoes (sukkerglaserede kartofler), and duck gravy.
The waiter pours a Pinot Noir Signature for you, for the daughter … but forgets to pour for the mother. Discreetly, you call that to his attention, and she thanks you with a blue-eyed sparkle.
The women lift their glasses toward you. “We wish to toast you,” the daughter says, and the three of you chink glasses — “Na zdravie,” they say, and you say, “Skål, cheers, na zdravie” — and drink.
You finally ask their names. Leda is the daughter and Danna the mother; you ask Danna how she happened to choose Leda for a name.
“It was my grandmother’s,” she says.
“Ah!” You hesitate for fear of seeming inappropriate, not certain where your words will lead you, but go on. “You know the story of Leda and the swan?” They do not. “Zeus, the god of gods in Greece, appeared in the form of a swan to the mortal Leda, and their love produced the beautiful Helen of Troy.” You do not add that this led to the Trojan War.
Above their pleased smiles, their eyes seem to study you, and the mother asks your name.
“Ah, Tomás!” they say in unison, embellishing your pronunciation of it, and ask if you are in family with the Kennedys. “Yes, of course,” you say, “but it is a very big family.”
Danna smiles, asks, “Are you professor?”
“Part-time,” you say, and ask how things are in Slovakia now, compared with under the Soviets, and are surprised to hear Danna say, “Was better twenty years ago. You did not have so much, but what you have is secure. The health and the education was free. Now is different.”
“I agree — a sign of true civilization is when education, health care, and welfare are financed by taxes.”
Danna tells about her children. Leda is Danna’s oldest — twenty-one. (Ten years younger than your own daughter; you feel shame at having looked with such appreciation at the placement of her ruby.) Then there is a girl in Texas in her first year of college and a boy of twenty, Par, who still lives at home.
“He is very … how-you-say? Introvert. Just work and books at home. No friends.”
Ten years younger than your own daughter; you feel shame at having looked with such appreciation at the placement of her ruby.
“But twenty is so young,” you say, and tell how lost you were at twenty, how you went out hitchhiking around America, how you didn’t even begin to find what you wanted to do until you were thirty. You have turned in your seat now and are addressing the mother, whose face and mouth are very pretty.
“And I have just go back to the college for my master’s degree, now my children are grown,” she says.
“You must have started very young. Honestly, I thought at first you were sisters.”
“I am forty next birthday,” Danna says, and you wonder what she would think if you told her you are sixty-eight, soon sixty-nine — and maybe still lost.
“You have only the daughter?” Danna asks, and you tell about your son, who has just completed his master’s degree in history. He’s thirty-three — much closer to Danna’s age than to your own.
Even the mother is too young for you. But this is not about romance, you decide. It is only a romantic moment. Enjoy it.
The dessert is served now: traditional Danish Christmas rice pudding, ris a l’amande, with almonds and white chocolate sprinkled with the fruit and juice of stewed blackberries, and a glass of ruby-colored port. You wonder if the port is filled with love.
The waiters are smiling at you. Their smiles seem to say that you have contributed to the conviviality of the evening and of the dining room. Or maybe they’re thinking what a randy old goat you are. Maybe they’re thinking, If he can do it, we can do it.
For your part, you can’t believe the good fortune of your evening. It makes you think of a Portuguese friend you have not seen for years who once, at a very happy party, said, “Thomas, there is good astri over this night. Good stars.”
After dessert you ask, ”Shall we take our coffee in the bar? It’s very cozy.”
You taste your cognac and wonder if the coincidence could mean anything — like connecting the stars to form a shape.
“Yes,” says Danna, “I would like,” and the three of you withdraw to the Bibliotheque Bar alongside.
You are delighted that Danna chooses the chair close beside you. Despite your nearly three-decade age difference, it feels affirming. You offer the ladies a cognac, but they say they have already had their fill of wine.
You order a cognac for yourself, and coffee for all three of you, and you chat. For some reason you find yourself exchanging astrological signs — Danna is a Capricorn, but both Leda and you are Pisces. She was born so long after your birth, but the two of you share the sign of the fishes. Of course, you don’t believe in such things, but you taste your cognac and wonder if the coincidence could mean anything — like connecting the stars to form a shape.
Then they offer their addresses and you give each of them your card. Leda meticulously prints out her mother’s email address and her own Copenhagen mailing address on a piece of the notepaper you have given her from the inner breast pocket of your jacket. She lives on Tom Kristensens Vej, in the south harbor.
“Ah,” you say. “Tom Kristensen!”
“Who is Tom Kristensen?” Leda asks.
“One of my favorite authors. He published the novel Havoc in 1930, one of the very best Danish novels I’ve ever read.”
“I do not know this,” she says, and writes the name and title down.
Then you ask how they are getting home, whether you should escort them across to the train station, but they say they will take a nearby bus.
Danna will be returning to Slovakia in three days, and you consider inviting her for coffee one of the days, but you decide not to, and the three of you vow to keep in touch.
“I send you email,” Danna says. “I will try to write in English.”
“I will help you,” Leda adds.
You take Danna’s hand in your own, touch your lips to it, look into her eyes, thank them both for the pleasure of their company. Each, in turn, offers a hug.
Outside, in the deep dark of the Danish winter night, it has begun to rain. You button the collar of your Burberry and pull the peak of your Irish tweed cap tighter over your eyes, wondering if indeed the three of you will keep in touch. You wonder if you really want to. But then you realize that it does not matter whether you are in touch or whether you are not. What matters is that there were good astri over the three of you this night and that the ruby is the most powerful gem in the universe.
You cross to the Central Station, thinking of your little apartment, the bright colorist art on the walls; the book you are reading by Naja Marie Aidt; of your girlfriend with her daughter; of Danna’s son, who is lost as you were at twenty. Maybe people only get accustomed to being lost, get cozy with the havoc. You smile at the thought that Danna’s daughter lives on Tom Kristensens Way and at the cozy exchange of this evening, this chance meeting, amid the havoc of the world.
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