In a shocker, the Serbian security guard at a Paris hotel last week took me for a tippler. He had watched my beleaguered wife and three fatigued daughters, dragged around behind me to all the sights, return each day with sore feet. His broken English was terrible. My guidebook French was worse. But "good" is universal.
Marco produced an old plastic bottle covered with Cyrillic alphabet letters that all look like wrong-way Rs and Os with lines through them. Be it from the cornfed hollows of the Carolina backcountry or Europe's orchards, homebrew is homebrew.
Face lumpy and knuckles scarred, from a war-torn country, Marco tipped it back like a Coke and took a gulp.
"You, now," he ordered.
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I am a man on an allowance, both here and in Europe, because I would blow all the phone bill money on coffee and beer and lottery tickets. But what is left of my manhood teetered in the balance. Not to mention the guy looked like he could kill me with his bare hands for an offense of manners. So, I drank.
Dante was wrong. The inferno is in Europe. It was in my chest and made from prunes.
I passed the bottle back, eyes tearing up.
"Guet," I said. Good.
"Again," said Marco, who laughed at the American fool.
So I did as I was told.
In Europe, even a bumbling tourist like me, language-challenged, can make friends quickly over a drink.
"You are man now," Marco told me.
I felt little else, including my legs, but I did feel kinship.
I found friendship with regular guys in London pubs, where I drank white coffee -- dark is without milk -- and John Smith bitter and Guinness stout beer. And in Rome, where a coffee bar bartender named Tony on the Via del Corso got to know me from countless cappuccinos.
There is almost no plain coffee in Europe. No, I haven't gone over to the dark side; I still love perked and brewed coffee from gas stations and diners. But in Europe, cappuccino and espresso is for everybody, not just the Starbucks crowd in America that spends the rent on coffee. There are Starbucks there, too, filled with fat Americans who drank out of paper cups. I drank from porcelain cups atop saucers and was in the middle of the rest of the world. I was so lucky, and I finally knew it.
"America, the movie stars, they are like stars in the sky, you see them everywhere?" Tony asked me in halting English.
I said no, they just glitter all the time on television.
Tony was crestfallen. I should have said that working stiffs like me -- who take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for two weeks that I won't pay off until 2013, who meet the blue-collar guys of London, Paris and Rome -- rub shoulders with stars all the time.
Barkeeps and coffee men and bellhops wanted to know why I was there. And I always said, badly, that my three kids will remember it forever, and I'll borrow the money for the light bill from a loan shark if I have to so I can show them what a great big wonderful world there is out there if they will just embrace it. People who talk different and eat different, yet after a smile and an attempt at conversation, at friendliness, want to know you and America.
It doesn't hurt that so many people there drink coffee all day during breaks, sip wine or nurse beer in cafes and pubs over conversation all evening and smoke like factories in Cleveland. Lovers hold hands and stroll. They kiss on the street. Men pound fists on zinc-fronted bars and argue over soccer. Betting is legal and done as casually as prayers. I bought coffees and drinks, and they bought twice as many.
I made up for it with Tony by having a Peroni beer. Or was it three? More?
A balding guy named Henri stood barside at a cafe in Paris's Montmartre, in the shadow of the Sacre Couer church. The highest point in Paris, with a 10-foot Jesus painted on the inside of the sanctuary and you have to walk up a million steps to get there. Henri wore a battered blazer and a smile. We chattered through three "Cafe Cremes" -- espresso with frothed cream, strong as undiluted antifreeze -- then he said, "Left" with a smile and a point when I said, "Pardon, s'il vous plaît, uhh, uhh, toilette?
How to get to the bathroom, another universal communication from the great people of Europe to the wise-guy foreigner too dumb to learn a foreign language before going abroad.
I came back and we talked, one word at a time in languages we did not know. He had two sons, I found out. He was a father and a husband in for a coffee on the way home from work as a clerk, and he made my life better.
I am 40 years old, and I thought Europe was old buildings and ruins, and I find out it is people named Henri and Tony.
Of course, Henri probably went home and told his wife that Americans are so stupid they speak one word at a time, like me.
Everywhere I went -- riding buses and subways and trains because Europe's big cities are for people and not cars, although cars are everywhere stuck in traffic -- the people showed grace. They are lean because people walk everywhere and run to catch trains and buses. They don't smile at first because life is a hustle, but they light up like Christmas when you try and be nice in their language.
Even to me, standing aside an Indian man from Delhi named Singh, inside St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
"My, this is impressive," said Mr. Singh, my new friend. All religions and all colors from all over filled places like St. Peter's and Westminster Cathedral in London and Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Prayers in languages indecipherable to me were beautiful, soft and lovely. Black and brown and yellow and white knelt together.
Differences melted away.
"Wow, big," is all I could offer.
Mr. Singh probably wondered if he had just met his first American dummy, but he just whispered, "Holy place. God lives here. I am glad I am here. Nice to meet you."
No, nice to meet you, Mr. Singh.