‘Let me just get you guys started with some waters,’ said the waiter, placing a glass in front of each of us before filling them from a carafe. I knew he was a waiter because he was performing this very action but if he had been, say, just standing around I could’ve easily assumed he was a member of the clientele judging by his casual afternoon-round-Joe’s attire.
‘Here are the menus and I’ll be back in a minute okay?’ He smiled but a hint of nervousness stood out. I wondered if it was his first week in the job.
We were in a taco restaurant, lured in by the hipster vibe and the comprehensive menu on the door. Already we had spent several hours sampling craft beers in Gastown, Vancouver’s red brick district. Compared to what looked like a modern city, Gastown seemed like a stage set, built for a movie that was never made and turned into a tourist hive. Its boundaries were too finite, too choreographed to feel real but despite this it had a rich atmosphere and a liveliness that made you never want to leave.
And it was truly hipster. Trying to get a meal served on a ceramic plate rather than a wooden plank was almost impossible and if you weren’t eating meat that was ‘pulled’ well…what were you eating? Every waiter and waitress looked like they’d stumbled out of an Abercrombie advert and into a plaid warehouse and everyone wore baseball caps and made you feel like you’d picked the coolest thing on the menu. ‘You want the pulled pork ciabatta sandwich with peppery rocket? High five man, what a choice!’ We were in love.
Although we’d liked the last place a lot, a bar on the main street through Gastown, we’d had a walk around after a drink and realised we couldn’t have dinner there.
‘Did you tip?’ asked my friend Pat.
‘No I forgot!’
‘Agh, another place we can never go back to.’
This was the habitual problem we were finding. You just don’t tip in Britain when you get a drink at a bar. At all. Ever. Maybe if you’re at the Ritz, I don’t know, but certainly not in a pub. So alien is it to tip for a drink, that we absolutely never remembered, leaving in our wake a list of nice establishments we could never show our faces in. All we could do was hope that the Canadians were aware of the non-tipping culture in the UK and know we weren’t being rude.
So we’d found ourselves in the taco restaurant.
We’d been sipping our waters, because that’s what you do when somebody puts a glass of water in front of you, it’s a natural reaction. We each had half to three quarters left in our glasses. The waiter returned.
‘Decided what you want?’ he said happily, reach over and topping up our glasses from the carafe he had been walking around with. Okay, I didn’t necessarily need more water but this was nice. In England if you ask for water in a restaurant you’re met with a raised eyebrow and pursed lips that mean, ‘sure, but you better order a real drink as well.’
The four of us ordered margaritas and a type of taco each, they were really cheap and elegantly worded.
The margaritas arrived a couple of minutes later during which we had all drank approximately one inch of water. Our waiter laid down our cocktails, went to grab a carafe and topped up our water glasses. Pat looked at me across the table, unblinking. Olivia grinned at the waiter, ‘thank you!’ she said, ever polite in her bewilderment.
We toasted our cocktails and drank to our reunion, blinking away the tears caused by a barrage of lime and salt. I suppose a couple of us must’ve taken sips of water after a few mouthfuls of margarita because lo and behold, the waiter was back, topping up our water glasses within a minute.
By this point we were getting concerned about drinking water at all. There were a lot of tables filled and not many waiters, if we continued drinking just sips of water our waiter would be rushed off his feet topping us up.
‘Do you think the constant topping up works with the margaritas too?’ asked Alex.
Pat reached for his water glass out of habit but caught himself, warily eyeing the room for our ever-keen waiter.
‘I want a sip of water,’ said Olivia, the most ordinarily hydrated of us all. ‘But I’m afraid he’ll fill my glass up again.’
Our tacos arrived and we realised why they had been so cheap, they were tiny. Presumably we had wandered into some kind of tapas taco restaurant where you were supposed to order a wide variety of things and share them. Restaurants like this need signs. Or the word tapas. Pat looked at his tiny taco and looked at us plaintively. The waiter topped up his water glass.
All the water was having an effect and I excused myself and went to find the toilets. A small side corridor led to four doors, two with pictures of tacos on them and two with pictures of burritos on them. I laughed out loud. 2015 was the age of new gender designations, the old skool man and woman icons reserved only for public conveniences. The week before I’d been in a bar with a framed bra on the Ladies door and framed boxers on the Mens.
When I got back to the table Pat was getting close to a break down, instinctually tempted by the water but afraid of the looming figure over him wielding the dreaded carafe. ‘We have the best water in the world,’ a Vancouverite had said to me the day before. Now I knew just how fervently they stuck to that.
The tacos were, despite their diminutive sizes, absolutely delicious and we embarked on a second round of margaritas and several more water top-ups. The others visited the toilets, similarly amused by the taco/burrito choice of food-assigned genital options.
I had drunk a reasonable quantity of water by the time my second margarita was dwindling and while the alcohol of the evening was heavily diluted, my kidneys were working overtime. I headed for the toilets and found a queue of two women. A burrito demarcated toilet was open but Canadians are so polite they make the British look uncouth and so I joined the line.
After a short time it was just me waiting for a ‘ladies’ toilet and, presumably thanks to the unstoppable water supplies, there was a steady stream of men using the ‘mens’ toilets. However at one point I was waiting alone, abiding by the unspoken rule of waiting for my gender’s cubicle and ignoring the burrito one open and free. A guy around nineteen turned up, long black hair and a red and black plaid shirt with the collar buttoned up.
‘Errr…are you…’ he said gesturing to the open burrito cubicle.
‘No that’s fine you go ahead, it’s a guy’s one after all,’ I said breezily. He looked at the burrito and taco signs and went a shade not too dissimilar from his shirt.
‘Oh…um…oh, well…oh god, what does it mean?’ he was losing it slightly; confronted by me and a sign that undoubtedly signified a gastronomic penis. ‘I don’t mind if you…’
‘No it’s okay you go ahead,’ I said.
‘Thanks,’ he put his head down and whizzed past me into the cubicle.
I sat down at the table as Alex got up, a merry game of musical chairs where no one can stay sat down for very long without needing to relieve themselves. I took a sip of water, somehow feeling slightly thirsty but enough was enough. As our waiter came to take our plates, he started leaning over the table to top up my water glass. I held up my hand.
‘I’m okay thanks,’ I said. He gave me the most amazing look of relief.
‘Thanks!’ he said. It was then that it occurred to me that perhaps he was simply filling up our glasses until we said ‘stop’. Maybe that was just how things worked over here, the customer had unlimited water rights and were expected to relieve the waiters quickly of their duty. Maybe he thought we were weird, constantly demanding more water with our silence.
We asked for the bill and set about trying to drain our glasses, another mouthful for the road. Full to the brim, we paid up and left the restaurant, heading back into downtown to our hostel. It was chilly, the September sun having left little warmth in the air. Huddled in his jacket but traipsing happily down the street, Pat turned to me.
‘Did you remember to tip?’