Book Excerpt

From the June 2015 magazine.

What Do We Do About the Wine?

Or, how I learned to toast the Queen without really drinking

"Listen," my hostess cried as she burst into my room as I was putting up my hair in preparation for the evening's festivities, "did I remember to warn you about toasting the Queen?"

I put the comb down and turned from the mirror. "No," I said coolly, "you didn't."

We were due to dine at Government House in exactly two hours. Cocktails were to be served at eight sharp, dinner at eight-thirty. Protocol, the life blood of a Royal Crown Colony, demanded punctuality. I was to sit on the Governor's left. I was to address him as Sir First Name and his wife as Lady Last Name. (Mine not to reason why--that is what I was supposed to do.) And if by some terrible fluke of my wayward Yankee unconscious I called the Governor Sir Last Name and his wife Lady First Name--well, after all, I am an American. The Governor had no doubt coped with the Angry American and the Ugly American in the course of his duties. Now he was going to be faced with the Absent-Minded American. (The actual miserable fact was that we would both be very lucky if I remembered either of his names.) All this I was prepared for. But nothing had been, said about toasting the Queen.

"Well," said my hostess plunking herself down on my bed and narrowly missing my best silk dress, thoughtfully laid out for the evening. "You have to. We all toast the Queen. It's protocol."

I picked up my comb again. "Tell me more," I said evenly, turning towards my own startled reflection in the mirror. I had now replied 'cooly' and 'evenly' which just about exhausted my repertory of casual offhand answers in moments of rising panic. But apparently they served to reassure my hostess, who couldn't see my face, because she expanded on the dilemma in a calmer voice.

"It's like this. There will be a whole row of wine glasses at your place. The last one is for the port. You can refuse everything but the port. It comes at the very end of dinner. When Sir First Name rises and says, 'The Queen,' you must get up and raise the port to your lips."

I gazed intently at myself in the mirror. "Get up," I mumbled, "raise the port to my lips.

"Take a sip. That's all there is to it. You can do that, can't you? Just one sip?"

I turned to smile at her. "No," I said coolly and evenly, "I can't."

There was a sigh like air hissing out of a balloon as she sort of collapsed over onto my dress. "You can't?" she gasped. "What are you going to do?"

I rolled the last of the hair on the top of my head onto a great, fat curler. "My dear," I said crushingly, "I'll think of something. I've been in much tighter corners than this. You're sitting on my dress." That got her out of the room as I had hoped, but she left with the rather despairing expression of the hostess who wishes she had not undertaken to drag a questionable guest into the higher reaches of society. I turned to the mirror again. My reflection stared at me, round-eyed. "What tighter corners have you been in," I said to me, "and where?"

I remembered my first trip out of the country about ten years ago, also to the British West Indies, and how odd I had felt when a tray of free rum punches had been stuck under my nose by the airplane stewardess, as a sort of preview of hospitalities to come. And how I had asked for, and instantly been served with, a plain fruit punch instead. And how I had told myself to remember always to seek a substitute, so as to be part of the occasion, and not to feel separate and alone. That, I discovered, was the great pitfall for the traveling, non-drinking alcoholic--that circumstances could conspire to make one feel cut off even from fellow tourists. This threat to one's identity had sent some of my fellow AAs flying home ahead of schedule from their longed-for trips abroad, and in other cases had provided the psychological springboard for a slip. But it could be circumvented if one prepared oneself for surprise, instead of being alarmed by it. Enjoyment of travel is openness to surprise, but the AA traveler must combine openness with readiness to cope.

I remembered that first evening in Paris when the waiter recommended the specialité and then asked if Mademoiselle wished him to recommend her wine as well. Mademoiselle was ready for the question. She wished him to recommend, instead, some substitute common to French people--some nonalcoholic beverage that could be inconspicuously consumed before meals and in cafés, when neither coffee nor Coca Cola were in order. Was there an acceptable French substitute? Mais oui. A natural effervescent mineral water called Perrier is by way of being a digestant and is as common as wine itself in every restaurant and café in France.

I remembered the first evening in Rome finding out that the naturally effervescent mineral water was now to be called Pellogrino. That it was just as common as Perrier in Paris, just as acceptable. I remembered during my most recent trip learning the Greek word for a carbonated cider (better than any soda pop I have ever had in the States and just as common) so that I could go along on even such cruise festivities as the wine festival in Rhodes knowing that I had the name of a substitute ready. I remembered on a pub crawl in London being introduced to a then new beverage which has since become my all-time favorite soft drink--Bitter Lemon. (This is a plug, but I can't help it.)

I could hear myself at AA meetings on my return from these jaunts saying the same two things over and over. "Nobody cares if you don't drink," and "there is always a local substitute." Well, now I had come bang up against a situation in which 1) someone did care if I did not drink and 2) there was no substitute. You could not toast the Queen in Bitter Lemon. That was becoming obvious. "I will raise the port to my lips and not take a sip," I told my bug-eyed reflection in the mirror. But that stare remained. "You'll be sitting on the Governor's left; he'll notice. They'll all notice. They'll think you're a Communist, or rude, or something terrible." I looked at myself sternly, "I am not any of those things," I answered, "I'm The Alcoholic American"--there was a new one for the Governor, or maybe not so new. I wondered fleetingly if there was a branch of AA in this particular West Indian island. If only I had bothered to check GSO before I set off in my larky way for my two week vacation. If there were just one other non-drinking alcoholic I could now ask about that moment when the Governor stood up and said, "The Queen." If, if, if. "Just don't tell me you've been in tighter corners than this!" my reflection said by way of a parting shot as I left the mirror.

And then I remembered that hot summer day in the railroad station in Rome. I had been misinformed as to the departure hour of my train for Spoleto and had arrived at the track just in time to see it pull out. I had found that the only other train would necessitate my changing late at night at the Italian version of the Jamaica change-over on the Long Island Railroad. I then lost my temper, burst into tears, and tried to repair to the ladies' room--only to discover that I had to queue up in one line for a towel, another for soap, and a third to gain entrance to facilities that included a wash basin. Since I do not speak Italian, all these discoveries were made through trial and error. But ultimately I wound up facing the old reflection again, tear-stained and rebellious this time. "You need an AA meeting," I told myself on that occasion. And I knew it was true because I wanted a drink.

So I stopped crying and put a new face on and went up to the telephone center to try to put a call through to Spoleto without losing my temper. There, leaning against the wall was an American waiting for his call. He looked familiar. I knew I knew him, but I couldn't think how. Then suddenly I remembered. Before I thought further I said, "Hello." His look was not very encouraging. "I know you from somewhere," I went on lamely.

"Really?" he said in the voice of a man who had been picked up before by lonely American girls and was in no mood for another one. "How do you know me?"

I glanced over my shoulder nervously. How could I tell him? Supposing I was wrong? Supposing we were overheard? He might be embarrassed, furious. . . . Then I thought of a perfect code. "Does the name Lenox Hill mean anything to you?" I asked, using the group label of a large metropolitan meeting.

He burst out laughing. "Oh, I know you," he said, all reserve gone, "You're so and so." There was my AA meeting. We spent the next hour together. He helped me get my money changed, bought me a sandwich, and put me on the train with a few well-chosen words in Italian to my compartment mates to make sure I made my connection. I hadn't felt so looked-after and cared-for since my mother used to give me to the Pullman porter when I took the train back to school.

I could hear myself telling about that strange, blessed coincidence when I got back to AA in New York. Providence, I had called it. One of those AA miracles. Well, I reflected, here and now in February of 1964, in the British West Indies I could use another miracle. Like maybe if the Governor would just forget to toast the Queen. . . .

I had no sooner reached my place at the Governor's left when I perceived that something was terribly wrong. There was no row of wine glasses. There was only one glass. Now what did I do? I looked wildly across the table for my hostess, but a foot-high floral decoration almost totally obscured her. All I could see were her eyes. They told me nothing.

The first course was fish. Wine was poured. I let my glass be filled. Maybe they were going to use this for the toast instead of port tonight. After all, it was a small dinner party. Meat was served. Then more of the same wine. The butler hovered over my full glass. I gave him a frozen smile. He came back in a little while and took my untouched wine away. Well, there went the ball game, toast and all.

Then I noticed that everybody's glasses had been taken away. Dessert came. Then cigarettes were passed. "You can't smoke," my hostess had said, "until they pass cigarettes." Well, she'd been right about that, anyway. Coffee was next, just a demi-tasse, not enough to do any real good, but better than nothing. "Now," I thought, "the port. . . ." The Governor touched my arm and gestured towards the butler who was standing to my right with an entire trolley full of liqueurs.

It's been a long time since I took a really good look at a collection of after-dinner drinks but in one glance I could see there was no port. Perhaps, I surmised, we were to toast the Queen in liqueurs. The Governor, who was served first as the representative of the Royal Family, had taken brandy. I smiled frozenly at the butler again. He smiled back. I pointed to the green mint. He poured me one of those little thimbles full, put it at my place, and moved on. I glanced towards my hostess. Obviously I had made the wrong move. Her eyes blinked disbelievingly across the hedge of flowers at me. This time I could read her look. It was quite clear that she thought I had cracked under the strain and taken to the bottle. I tried to wink reassuringly. She shut her eyes in pain. The Governor drank his brandy. Everybody else drank his. Only my little green glass remained untouched. The Governor looked at it and then at me. My frozen smile had now become permanent. If they were waiting for me to finish my liqueur before they passed the port we would sit there until doomsday. I considered dumping it in the flowers, the fingerbowl, over my left shoulder. If only the butler would take it away. . . . The Governor seemed unable to look at anything else. I thought that in one more minute I would lean towards him and say, "Sir What's Your Name, Governor dear, I regret exceedingly that I find myself quite unable to drink this spiked green mouthwash. But I have never liked it, and if I ever have to go, I will not go on crème de menthe. Protocol or no protocol, Queen or no Queen."

But suddenly the Governor and his lady, as if at some secret signal, rose simultaneously from the table. The Governor's wife started to lead the ladies out of the dining room. I was the first to follow, dazed, unable to believe my reprieve. As she took my arm, I blurted out the question that was uppermost in my mind. "What about the toast?" I asked.

"What toast?" she smiled sweetly.

"Well you know," I fumbled, "The Queen."

The Governor's wife laughed. "Oh, we don't bother with that when we're informal. . .and when there are mostly Americans." She peered at me kindly and added, "I hope you weren't disappointed."

I tried to supress a sudden, hysterical fit of giggles. "No!" I said, "just surprised--surprised is all."

Which brings me back to my starting point--the one fixed element of travel is surprise. The next morning when, as usual, I was awakened by the glare of the sun on the Caribbean, I remembered a promise I had made to the editors of the Grapevine to write a travel piece for other wanderers in our fellowship. What a perfect day to begin it! I opened my typewriter, put in the paper, and without thinking banged out the title we had agreed upon: "What Do We Do about the Wine?" I stared at it. And then I burst out laughing. I thought of all my pet theories and pat sayings, and the brand names of the better, substitute soft drinks. But my experience of the night before had given me a new insight. When the chips are down, abroad as well as at home, there is only one answer to that old question: "What do we do about the wine?" It can be said in three words. Don't drink it. Pour it in the flowers, in the fingerbowl, over your left shoulder. But don't, repeat, do not drink it. One lovely day at a time.

So have a beautiful trip if you're going away this summer. Let no unnecessary worries come between you and your wonderful adventures. Welcome those surprises. Bon Voyage! Arrividerci! And, oh yes. . ."The Queen!"


-- E. M. V.