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A La Carte
by C.J. Michaels
2006-12-06 09:37:54
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There are better places to spend a Friday lunchtime, on a late summer’s day in Paris, than squeezed into a baking hot corner table in Café Didot by the door to the old-fashioned squat toilet.

Outside would be preferable. My lungs wouldn’t be in meltdown from the chlorine bleach that pervades the restaurant and the deafening racket of pneumatic drills, homicidal Vespa riders and the rumbling green buses on Boulevard Brune would replace the hubbub of French conversation and reduce my feeling of alienation.

This is no tourist trap serviced by caricature waiters and beret-wearing accordionists entertaining weekend adulterers. Here, in this business district on the southern edge of the city’s quatrième arrondissement, where the cafes and shops are frequented by suited businessmen, blue-collar workers and residents of all ages, no one speaks English. This is only a problem to someone who doesn’t speak French. Like me.

The accidental tourist is rare and the enormity of the language barrier is apparent. “S’il vous plait,” and “Merci,” accompanied by theatrical pointing and throaty grunts, rarely succeeds for anything except buying morning croissants, as long as the server in the patisserie is in a good mood. Nothing happens easily, if at all, and the erosion of thirty-three years of confidence began six days ago at the fumbling of my first, “Bonjour.”

None of the limited interactions that I have experienced thus far have gone as planned. It is less embarrassing to buy deux of something when I do not know the gender of the noun, than to make a mistake over un or une however, if it continues for long, I shall get fat. I have needlessly used bucket loads of metro tickets and expect to use more because I can’t work out how to buy a carte de sesjours, or whatever it’s called, and I have ordered what I thought were meals, only to be served a bottle of wine.

The latest misadventure has resulted in a seat at the smallest corner table in Cafe Didot under the full glare of the mid-day sun and provides a frequent view of anyone taking a piss.

I am, as they say, merde out of luck.

It is a belittling experience, but I do not give up easily. My solo presence here is an attempt at total immersion, an experiment to see if inner resources will surface. So far, it is like diving into shark-invested waters with a gashed leg and no lifejacket.

I have been sitting and sweating in an apparently invisible state for fifteen minutes before the red-coated waiter finally approaches. For a while, I began to wish he’d never come and I could get up and walk back through the revolving door, smile confidently at the Vespa kids making a nuisance of themselves around the tabac and stride down the boulevard. Then, I wouldn’t need to dredge up the schoolboy French I didn’t learn all those years ago at the age of twelve.

It’s funny how all they teach you in school is mundane stuff like how your Auntie’s pen is on the table or the cat’s sleeping on a chair in the drawing room, but they avoid the realities of life. Teachers of eleven and twelve-year olds just don’t get it. One day those kids will want booze, cigarettes and condoms and knowing about a fleabag tabby passed out on his seat doesn’t help.

Despite concentrating when the waiter speaks, I am unable to recognize a single word besides, “Monsieur.” His whole singsong speech could have come from a monkey learning to talk.

I can see menus stacked up in a neat pile next to the wire-frame boiled egg stand on the counter, brown leather bound, all with the letters M E N U embossed in swirled gold. I need one to stare at and interrogate with the luxury of time and plenty of under-the-table help from the blue Collins dictionary that I have brought.

“Le menu, please, I mean, sill vous play,” I stumble, reddening immediately as I realize that I have entirely fucked it up, despite practicing for hours with the phonetics in the Berlitz phrasebook. The heat around my collar increases, sweat glands hitherto unknown have begun full production and I feel as though I had pissed my pants at a party.

I was expecting, of course, that he’d smile appreciatively at my attempt to communicate, collect one from the pile and then leave me to suffer over the curly handwritten script.

But he doesn’t. His expression becomes a grimace and he walks away. What have I done?

Time passes slowly. Minutes probably, but time is flexible and always stretches in the wrong direction. Einstein missed that rule. I’m hoping that the waiter will come back, that perhaps he was called away on some kind of emergency, but I fear the reality is that he hates me because I am English.

The table becomes intensely interesting and I study the yellow Formica until I know its chemical makeup, convinced beyond doubt that the eyes of the room are upon me. I can feel them, drilling through my head and into the wall.

Self-consciously, I begin to stand and am about to slope away and pretend this episode never existed when, suddenly, a young boy appears from nowhere in a flurry of French and begins to deposit food. A plate of this, a plate of that, a basket of sliced baguette. He speaks constantly but I have less idea of what he says than the waiter. I can’t even recognize, “Monsieur.”

There has been no menu, no way of choosing what to eat, but food is here and I am at a loss to know why or how or what. I sit back down with a jolt and the shock causes a loud burp, followed quickly by, “No - ” and a panicked outward thrust of my arm that, fortunately, hits nothing. He doesn’t pause or even noticeably blink and a flick of his wrist sends a knife and fork skimming the table to come to rest in front of me with perfect precision. Then he goes away, smiling and no doubt thinking I am mad.

I am still staring at the food with no idea of what to do when the waiter returns.

“Votre Leffe, monsieur,” he says, and bangs down a foaming beer on the table then rushes away. The short-lived glow of success at recognizing three words in a row is sadly replaced by the realization of how pathetic the achievement is and how confused the situation has become.

Surely, this food belongs to someone else. Obviously it’s not mine. Someone big, with no sense of humour and very French, hungry and quite cross.

Worriedly, I glance around, but no one is staring. Nobody looks to be paying any attention at all and, for a moment, I wonder why. If this happened to a Frenchman in Croydon, which is perhaps the equivalent of here, he’d immediately become the laughing stock of the whole place. The waitress would break the teabag in the milky tea he doesn’t want and little boys would make forays to his table to steal his chips or pinch his leg. But I suppose that’s what makes us English, isn’t it?

I am definitely in need of a drink and it seems cruelly ironic that there’s one in front of me that I can’t touch. Or can I? Why not? It’s not my mistake. So I take a gulp and another and the relief from the beer eases my throat and calms my soul. It also makes me think.

If I can drink the beer, then why can’t I eat the food? Maybe I can. What will they do? What could happen to me? Nothing. They could shout and gesticulate and spit their vowel-heavy words with missing syllables and I’ll understand as much as a dog at a political rally. I can consume as much as possible before the confrontation, and then slap down some money fast and run. These people used to chop off each other’s heads, but they don’t do it anymore. Not for lunch, anyway.

The food is unidentifiable, but I would probably devour most things that don’t contain goat cheese and this is brown and lumpy with bones sticking out, so there’s a good chance it once lived and a pretty good bet that it didn’t run in any races. Or, at least, not win any recently.

I drink the beer pretty fast and the food is really quite good, whatever it is, so I try to wolf it down before it’s whisked away and the screaming begins.

The waiter notices me when I unthinkingly look up and he starts out across the restaurant floor, almost on the run. This is it. He wasn’t that quick when I wanted a menu.

Panic. More panic. My feet are tensing on the floor, ready for a manic rush to the door. The aisle is clear, apart from a straying customer who could easily be barged. I put down the knife and fork – slashing someone during an escape attempt might cause an international incident.

The waiter arrives at the table with a disapproving expression, picks up the empty beer glass and raises it towards the ceiling, peering through the bottom. I am ready to run.

There is no hint of anger or annoyance of any kind. Why is there no incomprehensible French yelling, no beating on the table and no sign of the half-empty plate being taken?

“Encore de biere, monsieur?”

I understand, but make no attempt to reply. I can’t.

He speaks again, slowly, contorting his face. The words bottle up in his mouth and, when they emerge, are twisted and punished.

“Ah. Desole. Sorry. You are Anglaise, I think. You must want more beer, of course? Oui?”

I was expecting a rearguard attack from the boy, not this. I am confused, but a cracked murmur escapes my lips.

“Oui. Yes. Merci.”

It was predominantly French. I’ve done something right. He smiles and nods.

“Bon. ‘Ow you like le plat du jour?”

I stare at him silently, like a half-wit waiting for approval. He points down at the unfinished food.

“Le plat du jour, monsieur.”

And then...

“Today’s menu.”

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