On the bus in London and the Eurostar to France, our tour guide coached us. “Speak French. They like to hear their language, and will respect you if you try it. Remember, eating at a French restaurant is an experience. Savor every course. Don’t be too quick to order your meal. Enjoy the wine and the ambiance.”
This was our first Pop across the Pond, and London had been easy to navigate once we adjusted to cars driving on the left side of the road. France was another story.
As comedian Steve Martin said in an early routine, “In French, oeuf means egg, cheese is fromage… it’s like those French have a different word for everything.” In a comedy sketch from the 1970s, Martin goes into a French restaurant, orders a cheese omelet and tells the waiter in French, “I’ll have a shoe with cheese on it and shove it down my throat.”
We entered the City of Lights in the cultural context of Steve Martin, quickly in sensory overload on the ride from the train station to our hotel. Out of our nineteenth-story hotel room, we had a clear view of the Eiffel Tower, a breathtaking sight.
We walked several blocks with not even a clue we were on the Champs Elysees until later. We spotted an inviting place and looked at the menu. I was counting on my husband to communicate; he had read an entire manuscript in French for an academic jury to complete graduate school. Surely the words for chicken with fattening, buttery sauce haven’t changed in a quarter of a century.
We were seated inside a glassed area with a full street view of the wide boulevard. The waiter handed us giant menus. How we anticipated this, slow, relaxing, savored meal.
First, a glass of wine. The waiter sniffed at us because we wanted a glass, not a bottle of wine. Don’t all waiters in French restaurants sniff, or when you read about them, the word sniff is always used?
You could see his mind racing and the Ugly Americans imprint practically appearing as a cartoon cloud out of his head.
“Red,” or “white,” he said.
I said, “Pinot noir?”
He repeated, “Red” or “white.”
Okay, I guess we didn’t have any other options. My husband and I both said, “white.” The waiter scribbled on his pad and then said, “To eat?”
What? What about a salad? What about five courses? What about the “savoring?”
I had read the wine menu and wasn’t ready to order my entrée yet. And I wanted a salad. The waiter was pushy, so I selected something on the menu that looked vaguely familiar.
Pave de rumsteck de race Normandy pommes Pont-Neuf. In my unsophisticated mind, I thought this was beef rump roast with new potatoes. I confused Normandy with Burgundy thinking it would be something close to Beef Bourguignon. Or close enough. I’m eating in a French restaurant on the Champs Elysees, how bad can it be?
The waiter asked me in his broken English “how I wanted it?” I said “medium well.” At home, I usually order steaks medium, but I do not like my meat rare, so I erred on the side of caution. Rookie mistake.
Almost immediately the waiter brought our two glasses of wine, both red. My husband wanted to send them back, but I talked him out of it. Red is fine, I said. It’s a French restaurant in Paris. All good.
Within minutes, our entrées came out quicker than the daily special at Applebee’s.
My husband had ordered an assortment of meats, which in France apparently means two. My plate had pork spare ribs and mashed potatoes on it. I don’t do ribs. I could do mashed potatoes, but it wasn’t even close to what I thought I ordered. My dear husband sent it back, much to the contempt and disgust of our waiter.
This time, I savored the ambiance while my husband ate his meal, which he said was good. I savored that ambiance for nearly thirty minutes until my entrée arrived. The half hour wasn’t used to cook a steak, as it was one of the rarest pieces of meat I’ve seen apart from the Whitley County 4-H Fair auction.
I sawed at the edges with my knife. I ate the potatoes. I didn’t have the heart to send it back again. Nor could I endure the waiter’s sniff. We did not have the dessert, for fear the mousse au chocolat would be rare (and the other kind of rare) Canadian moose (Filet of Bullwinkle)