Part 1: Meet Our Olympic Eating Team
This week, along with four other stalwart competitors, I qualified for the Olympic All-Stars Eating Team. Our qualifying test was to graze the hell out of each and every café, bistro and restaurant table we could find in the Parisian vicinity.
Which I'm proud to say we did.
Let's meet the other members of the team, shall we?
First we have Craig, Joanne, Lisa, all from Salt Lake City: three stalwart dipsomaniacs who flew out for eight days to join me at the Paris Eater's Cut. Next, we have me, The Frigidaire Marauder. Finally, we have a nice gentleman from northern California who would prefer, for whatever discomfiting reasons, to be referred to here as LANCE HARDBODY.
This is our story.
The first thing I had to do was keep our team awake and away from the Metro, where within 15 minutes of arrival our cheerful dipsomaniacs promptly got taken for 40 euros. For those of you planning a trip to the City of Light, take my advice and don't accept the helpful offers of anyone in a subway, at the airport, on the street, near a bus or in your breathing space, particularly if you have luggage and are in white tennis shoes. Don't take the "lost" wedding ring. Don't let someone tie a friendship bracelet on your wrist. Eschew the offered questionnaire. And if someone comes up with a credit card and a smile and offers to buy your metro tickets for you because he "works" there, run.
A friendly word of advice: no one is that friendly in Paris.
So our first night as a team was a bit of a wash as we struggled to keep ourselves upright and out of the clutches of random thieves. A brief but wonderful dinner of pasta--prepared by LANCE HARDBODY--was soon had, washed down with one (OK, three) bottles of excellent white wine that became our team's drink of choice. (Don't know if you can get it, but the Saint-Bris 2010 Sauvignon is fantastic and, in Paris, roughly 8$ a bottle. Wine is the only cheap thing in this city, and it's pretty much the only liquid available at restaurants, as all waiters live in perpetual disbelief that anyone in their right minds could want something as insipid as WATER. Water? Why bother? You get enough of that from the air!)
The next morning, however, we began with a plate of warm croissants, jam, almond pastry and never looked back.
There followed, my friends, a caloric frenzy. What we did to ourselves and to the cafés and markets of Paris this week can only be termed "The War on Terroire." It was Pâté Holocaust. It was D-Day for Brie. It was Poultry's Stalingrad. In short, it was the most grotesque display of human cruelty to luxury foods before recorded. There were, of course, occasional casualties.
But--let's be honest, here--overall it was pretty awesome.
Part 2: Our First Qualifying Challenge
Our first challenge was to eat at Le Verre Volé: the restaurant with the rat-cancer causing beans in its crême brulée which my friend Brian requested I eat at way back in, like, April, after he read the New York Times review. Le Verre Volé is a very cute, very tiny restaurant located in a cave in the 10th, which means that besides being packed in cheek-to-jowl with the other patrons, random people walk in off the street to purchase bottles of wine from the shelves stacked behind the diners' heads. It's busy, young, crowded, and there were at least two tables of patrons on first dates. One of them even had a man wearing an actual beret. (He was of course American.)
This was our big splurge meal: plates of "Chinese" pork roast (I have no idea what was Chinese about that pork other than, maybe, the pig's owner once named it "China"), filets of succulent white fish on beds of black rice, crab and lentil hash on wilted spinach, lashings of pureed red pepper paste on beef carpaccio. All of it perfectly cooked or uncooked and succulent and, natch, horrifyingly expensive. (Aside: actually, for Paris, this place is fairly reasonable. For the rest of the world, however, it's the reason people are camping out in Wall Street.)
Our waiter, game to describe the meal in English for our non-French speakers in the team, also picked the two wines: a red and a white, both organically and locally produced, so soft and delectable on the palate that we were all aghast to find how quickly they'd disappeared into those expandable pouches we would soon learn to identify as our gullets.
But the big success of the meal was the fact that I had not only made a reservation for this meal IN FRENCH, but also called to confirm said reservation IN FRENCH ON THE TELEPHONE. For those of you who have ever learned a foreign language, you know that the telephone in particular offers limitless opportunities for syntactic humiliation. The fact I had confirmed this reservation and not (as I feared all that day leading up to the dinner) accidentally cancelled said reservation made me pleased as punch. And, to top it off, I managed to convince the waiter--the first one of my entire time in Paris to date!--to bring our table water.
Let's take a picture of that, shall we?
Oh my God. My kidneys just started giggling.
Anyway, on to the evening's coupe de grâce, the reason for the reservation, the water, the post itself, the only reason my friend Brian has been hanging on, month after month, post after post, faithfully following this ridiculous blog. Here it is, folks: Vicarious Living at its finest! I am now going to sample the FDA-banned crême brulée of Brian's dreams!
Beaming beneficently at my fellow teammates, pants straining with self-congratulation and Normandy cheese, I turn to the blackboard menu tucked away in the corner beside the ironic plastic skull with the cigar tucked in its mouth (the kitchen staff's idea of interior decorating, I'm guessing), raise my hand in a flabby, triumphal gesture and cry, Voilá! Le crême brulée! Only to discover, of course
THERE IS NO CRÊME BRULÉE.
None. Nada. Not a single vanilla bean left ungrated in the kitchen. When I asked the waiter whether there was some sort of mistake there, perhaps they kept a special supply in the back room for FDA customs officials or customers desperate to ensure their livers would never be transplant material? I was informed that it was just not on the menu anymore.
What was? Some sort of figs with a soft white cheese. Pears soaked in sweet wine sauce with a (sadly) too dry lemon cake. We got these two. They weren't very good.
But, because we are Olympic Eaters, we still finished the whole thing. And now I think Brian has permanently checked out of this blog. Sorry, Brian!
Part 3: A Visit to My Neighborhood Market
So, this is my market:
It's roughly a five minute walk from my apartment, at the Place D'Aligre. It's open Tuesday through Sunday and it sells pretty much everything from old books to sweat socks to fresh fish to roast chickens to foie gras and all the vegetables you will NOT see on plates in French restaurants. (What is it with the French and the lack of well-cooked vegetables in their cuisine? It's practically hostile. I once walked past the only vegetarian restaurant I've yet seen in Paris to find four sad, anaemic-looking people in their 20s hunched in a corner, staring miserably at a plate of black beans. I'm thinking of writing a poem for them called "Pity the Vegetarian.")
Lisa, a foodie from Salt Lake who works for Edible Wasatch, promptly lost it. "Oh my God! Food porn!" she cried, lunging forward and taking photo after photo of artichokes, fish, the rows of dahlias and roses freshly cut and stacked in little white buckets on display.
"Oh my God! Oh my god! You would never get anything this good in Salt Lake!"
Which is, like, duh.
The rest of the morning was spent in a minor ecstasy of food cruising, reminding me a little of that scene in the novel Sophie's Choice when Sophie is finally free of the camps and able to start eating solid foods again and so spends hours at the market, inspecting every slice of meat, every little morsel of cheese, planning her meals with such exquisite attention because the taste of food is now, to her, the taste of freedom itself. You would think all of us had been recently released from some kind of aesthetic internment camp the way we were acting there, oohing and aahing, basically losing our minds at every stall.
Not everything at the market is grand, however. There is, of course, the Vendor Who Wants to Give You the Barquette of Rotten Fruit, for instance, and I got into a little hissy fit with one of the vendors' teenagers (a young kid wearing a Sons of Anarchy t-shirt, which should tell you just what kind of a psychological wormhole he actually is) who REFUSED to understand my (yes, badly) accented French as some weird point of honor, no matter how many different ways I asked for the escarole and the radishes and then the bill until the French woman behind me, fed up at the incompetence of the whole thing and desperate to get on with her day snapped at the kid, "Just tell her how much the salad costs and let her pay, d'accord!" At which point, sulking and yet still smirking (what is that? Smulking?), this French Son of Minor Inconvenience reluctantly took my money and dribbled, coin by coin, my change back into my palm.
And then there was Joann. Who, while all the rest of us were now going nuts over the antique books and crazy mannequin heads wearing fur hats and the cheap jewelry and bad art and the weird sacks of old photographs and the silver spoons in their rotting velvet cases began tapping, insistently, her foot.
"So," she said. "I guess the name of this day is 'Things Keep Changing Schedule.' Am I right?"
I looked up, guiltily, a moth-eaten raccoon tail wilting off my forehead. Craig put down the book entitled "Satan's Lover." LANCE HARDBODY stopped rifling the spoons. Lisa sighed and slipped the Picasso rip-off back into its folder.
"We want to get that roast chicken back home to the apartment, don't we?" Joann continued. "And don't we want to get to the Eiffel Tower sometime this week? And aren't people ready for some lunch?"
"Low blood sugar," Craig mouthed at me. "We must leave IMMEDIATELY."
"And don't we want to walk on the shady part of the street going back?" she continued. "And don't we think it might be nice to have some coffee?"
Such were the questions echoing in my ears as I corralled my fellow teammates back to their apartment. Where, as you might suspect, we later had a very lovely, diabetically necessary, roast chicken dinner.
Part 4: In Which I Walk My Fellow Teammates to Death
No excuses about it: I worked them. Hard. Relentlessly. Day after day. Through the Marais, up to the Louvre, through the Tuileries, up the Champs Elysee. There to collapse for a nanosecond at the Arc de Triomphe, then onto a metro to the Eiffel Tower, then down to Chinatown to eat at a great Vietnamese place (Pho Tai Tai: sorry, no pictures) after which, everyone collectively gave up their will to live.
And that was just the second day.
We slogged through St. Germain-de-Pres, we trudged up Montmartre, we waddled from Bastille up the whole left Bank, we walked and walked the Rue de Rivoli and through the two islands. We fought our way up the Rue St. Denis (yes, to see the damn whores) and also through the Louvre. (Aside: I hate that fucking museum. Maybe this makes me a cultural infidel, but that museum is designed to baffle and overwhelm, and the crowds make it impossible to appreciate anything. You want a good museum? Go see the Musee Marmottan. By the end of my time at the Louvre, I was so disoriented and hot and annoyed and desperate to pee I paid the equivalent of 3$ just to use a restroom with no one else in it. Oh, and it had pink and green toilet paper, too.)
In short, we walked, my friends, and it ceased--quickly--to be charming.
Because all the walking I forced my teammates to do not only led to some occasionally frayed nerves and shoe soles but, worse, some real lassitude about where to procure the team's next meal.
Rather than seeking out another great French bistro or cooking for ourselves again, one night we ate at a local Algerian restaurant that I had read some good things about: Le Souk, located on Rue Keller. It was a ten minute walk from my teammates' apartment, which is the distance of a sneeze in Paris, and even THAT was almost too much.
"Are we sure we can walk that far to dinner?" Joann asked, rubbing her calves. "Are we sure we don't just want to stay home?" We were sitting at a bar just outside their apartment, being served by a cute Parisian waiter whose English was impeccable--and heavily London-accented.
"If we don't, then we're going to have nothing to eat but bread and cheese," Lisa replied.
The team paused, considering. Starve, or die walking? The first wasn't an option. We were OLYMPIC EATERS. So we decided to die walking. At least if we were going to die, we thought, we had the option of dying face down in a fruity, duck-filled tagine.
And there are worse things in life than that now, aren't there?
Part 5: We Take A Break
Le Souk was one of two happy moments with North African cuisine this week. LANCE HARDBODY had also wanted to visit an Algerian pastry shop on the Rue de Saint Maur, called La Bague de Kenza. Finding this little café was itself an accident, as I'd marked the address down wrong in the Michelin Paris Plan I stole from my teammates' apartment. We came upon it out of the blue during an aborted shopping trip on Monday. (Aside: Nothing is open on Monday.) The place is quite large, containing both a tea room and, right next to it, a whole bakery FILLED with Algerian pastries. No need to describe them here. Let's just take a look.
I know, right? HOLY SHIT.
So we ordered ourselves a modest seven pastries and sat down in the tea room with a silver pot of hot, sweet mint tea and the platter of pastries to eat, and talk, and rub our feet, and generally feel pretty good about our tourist selves, even though we'd walked and walked (again!) and still hadn't bought anything.
But that's the beauty of food. Food never judges. It's just happy you're there. Hey, food says, so long as you can keep opening your mouth and chewing, that's enough for me. Stop listening to your I-Calendar, your emails, your nervous ambition. You are getting something done here. You, in my world, are a MOVER and SHAKER. Put down those lousy papers you have to grade. Forget poetry. Come root around in my world, the refrigerator, where everyone is cool, and everyone is happy to see you.
This is pastry's siren song. This is the aria it constantly, if dimly, sings.
And it is why, my friends, I've had to join a gym this week.
Part 6: Because I Am A Big Fat Whore
is what I say to the waiter in Honfleur, Normandy, where we are, for two days, spending the last moments as a team together. Yes, I say this exact thing to him. Yes, I say it in English, in front of my friends, in front of a crowd of French diners who--because they are not Parisians thus still have some curiosity left in them about other human beings--are watching, listening, amused by my confession. I say it because I am exhausted. My French is tapped out from all the negotiating at metro stations and grocery stores and boutiques, from the gooey rush of calories this week has pumped into me. All the wine and cheese and buttery croissants and terrines larded with duck fat have thickened the arteries that pump blood into my brain. What I'd been trying to say, and was saying--sort of--in French, was that my friends would like to split their meal but I wanted my own, even though it was the same list of menu items, even though, yes, maybe it was a lot altogether, but I still wanted it, I wanted ALL of it, I had NO INTEREST in sharing, though my other female teammates did, because I was an Advanced Eater by this point, I was going for gold, and why was this except for the fact that, yes, I was a big fat whorish pig, I was an American woman, goddammit, and I wanted the whole fucking formule.
Which is when, god help me, I actually hunched over my plate and made frantic shoveling gestures with both my hands at my mouth.
Let's just say, I quickly became THAT waiter's favorite customer.
Finale: What We Learned
At the end of the week, I think we all learned some valuable lessons. Craig finally learned that "Salut" is NOT the word for "Good Health." Though it was charming to clink our glasses together and hear my friends shout, "Hi!" at each other at every meal.
Lisa learned three French words and used them consistently if not always in the right situations. She has also learned (by now) that I am a terrible photographer. I think those last couple of shots I took of you all in the apartment came out badly, if the photos that I'm finding on my own camera tonight are any indication. I blame the sun. Sorry, Lisa!
Joann learned that walking, while good exercise in small doses, is perhaps lethal in European portions. She learned, as we all did, that a French salad is not under any contractual obligation to include vegetables. (See photo below of "Seafood Salad.") She did not, however, ever learn to distinguish the first person singular from the first person plural.
LANCE HARDBODY learned that eating a whole veal head might not actually be as fun as it sounds. He also learned that the place his family once came from--Ouilly-Basset--is a very lovely piece of country, which was not only a relief to him but to the rest of us hard on the lingering trail of the Bassetts. (Aside: It also proved for some more Amusing Episodes With the French, where one of the women from the village kept trying to convince him (via me as translator) he was NOT from the region, as his last name had two t's while their village only had one. At which point, LANCE HARDBODY wanted me to explain to her that his family left the village with William the Conqueror and got the extra "t" in England. Picture me, exhausted, snapping, "You want me to tell her about WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR?")
I learned that my French has quite a ways to go. Like, a galaxy's length. I also learned that I am an impatient guide, much to my shame. In my (limited) defense, it's because I've been a tourist or visitor myself for what feels like months. A tourist in California, a visitor in my parent's home, a guest in my own house back in Utah for a week, then a guest in England, and now--finally--an eternal tourist in Paris. What I've been doing with my friends these past eight days is essentially what I've been doing for almost two months. And what about the writing, which was the purpose for this grant? What about getting better, not worse, at French? When do I go from just getting by in this place to actually feeling, even a little bit, more comfortable? More at home? More in a space that I could actually write and feel as if I'm LIVING here?
I don't know. I hope it happens. Sometimes I think, if it weren't for this blog, I wouldn't get any writing done at all.
Now THAT'S a dark thought requiring an escape. Luckily for me, I've already stocked the refrigerator.