Fifteen years ago, I toiled in a restaurant chain situated in the southern region of France. In an establishment that offered semi-buffet dining, my role was stationed in the self-service area, where my responsibilities encompassed replenishing any depleted provisions. If the dessert offerings fell short, I would exclaim to the kitchen. If the beverage supply dwindled, I would venture to the warehouse for resupply.
On a regular basis, a venerable gentleman with a grizzled beard graced us with his presence during lunchtime. Despite his unassuming attire and outwardly ordinary appearance, he exuded kindness and conversed with a refined and humorous disposition. He affectionately referred to me as “little girl” and invariably inquired, with a smile adorning his countenance, “Little girl, which delectable dessert do you recommend today?”
The restaurant featured a daily spotlight dessert, priced 0.4 euros lower than the other options. The old gentleman would engage me in discussions, saying, “Little girl, might you consider adding a buttery blossom to the dessert? I yearn to savor it alongside a cup of coffee.” His benevolent nature fostered a sense of familiarity between us. Every time, I obliged him, ensuring a generous portion. His smile radiated brilliance, revealing a set of immaculate teeth. He would always express his happiness, proclaiming, “Thank you, my dear, you are the epitome of excellence!” His tone carried an unwavering sincerity.
One evening, he arrived for dinner only to discover that the recommended desserts had sold out. A tinge of disappointment crept into the old gentleman’s voice as he expressed, “Alas, today happens to be my birthday.”
I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for him, as he was perpetually alone and consistently opted for the modestly priced recommendations.
“Please proceed to the payment counter. I shall personally bake the dessert and deliver it to your table,” I offered in an apologetic tone. The featured dessert for that day was the “Normandy Apple Tart.” To make it extra special, I adorned it with two luscious butter blossoms and kindled a petite candle.
He sat there, savoring a glass of red wine in solitude. When his eyes fell upon the cake, his face illuminated, and he shared, “You know, my dear, my mother hailed from Normandy. During my childhood, she would lovingly prepare apple tarts for me week after week.”
With that, he reached into his wallet, extracted a 50 euro note, and extended it to me, saying, “Thank you.”
In France, gratuities are not obligatory, particularly in semi-buffet establishments. In 2002, a 50 euro tip amounted to a substantial sum. I initially declined, yet the old gentleman gently pressed the money into my hand, remarking, “By accepting this gift, you honor me on my birthday.”
His reasoning proved impossible to resist, and I gratefully accepted the money. Upon returning to my work station, the duty manager inquired, “Do you know who he is?”
I shook my head in ignorance. The manager gestured with his hands and shared, “Have you noticed the gas station across the road? And the vacant vineyard beyond the gas station? They all belong to him. Furthermore, our commercial center stands on land that was once his possession.”
“Astonishing!” I gasped, my hand instinctively covering my mouth. “Then why does he frequent our humble establishment and insist on indulging in the daily recommendation?”
The cashier beckoned the manager, who shrugged as he approached, saying, “In the realm of the affluent, we seldom possess such insights.”
In early autumn, as I queued outside the municipal library awaiting computer access, I encountered the old gentleman near the entrance. Clad in his usual plaid shirt and khaki trousers, his neatly trimmed beard conveyed an air of tidiness.
He greeted me with a warm smile. A poster affixed to the glass wall behind him showcased a lifelike portrait of his distinguished countenance. I glanced between the poster and him, my surprise evident. He then casually remarked, “Ah, I made a donation of some books.”
Unable to contain my awe, I involuntarily exclaimed, “Wow, you possess immense wealth!”
He chuckled and responded, “Little girl, as you mature, you will come to understand that money is but a sequence of digits, while true worth lies elsewhere. When next we meet, kindly refrain from labeling me as affluent.” With a wave of his hand, he departed, blending seamlessly into the crowd as an ordinary elderly gentleman. Observing his departure, I couldn’t help but contemplate the freedom that accompanies wealth, enabling one to indulge in their desires. Were I blessed with such abundance, I would undoubtedly forsake ordinary apparel, opting instead for renowned fashion brands. I would relish Michelin-starred meals daily and commission a bespoke Ferrari, despite not possessingthe slightest interest in cars.
Years have passed since those encounters, and I have long since departed from the restaurant industry. However, the memories of the old gentleman remain etched in my mind. His humility, kindness, and ability to find joy in the simple pleasures of life left an indelible impression on me.
Now, as I reflect on those experiences, I realize the wisdom in his words. True wealth lies not in material possessions or extravagant lifestyles but in the connections we forge, the kindness we show, and the joy we derive from the little things. It is the ability to find contentment and purpose in the everyday moments that truly enriches our lives.
I often wonder what became of the old gentleman, whether he still frequents that restaurant or if he has moved on to new endeavors. Regardless, his impact on my perspective remains. I strive to carry forward his lessons and embody the values he exemplified—a reminder that true wealth lies not in what we have but in who we are and how we treat others.
So, as I traverse this journey, I cherish the memories of the old gentleman, forever grateful for the lessons he taught me during our encounters in that humble restaurant in southern France.