Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More Vicarious Living! For Angie

So. I attended my first French class. And discovered that the entire class is composed of tiny nuns.

Let me assure you that "tiny" is not a euphemism. I mean MINIATURE. I mean SPECK-LIKE. I'm a good foot taller than the tallest nun in class, which means that this woman--in miniature heels, no less--is somewhere around 4'6".

Likewise, "nun" is not a euphemism either. I mean NUNS. Like, Catholic-school style. Like, the kind of women I remember running around the school hallways of my youth, yelling in Italian, grabbing people's ears as they ran past on the stairwell.

This is going to be one long month.

I'm already feeling sorry for the nuns, who are very young women and very very sweet and, since they hail from places like Nepal and southern India and the Philippines, have an accent even thicker than mine. I can't understand their French. They can't understand mine. Miraculously, the teacher understands all of us, and of course all of us understand her perfectly enunciated French. It's an immersion class, which means she keeps babbling on at us in French no matter how uselessly we hobble along, gargling back our questions and responses to each other while wearing the same kind of stunned, puzzled expression my dogs get at the vet. It sometimes takes a while to understand what we're saying because of our terrible accents, but once we do, we're all pretty pleased. I even had a giggling fit today when I finally realized that the nun beside me, when asked her personal status, was actually saying the word "celibate" instead of what I thought she was saying, which was "recently liberated." The teacher was not happy about this, of course, as we all know that laughing at God's tiny celibates is, in the words of the French, "ze big no-no."

Anyway, to celebrate my first class, I took myself out to dinner. (I know. AGAIN.) One recent request I received (via the Facebook backchannel) was from my friend and fellow writer, Angie, who wanted me to eat at La Coupole in Montparnasse. For those of you interested in this restaurant, it sells itself on its website as "a jewel of Art Deco," one of the most renowned--and certainly largest--restaurants in Montparnasse. Here's a few pics of its impressive, if not totally tasteful, interior. Check this out:

The floor of the restaurant is a massive, ballroom-sized affair, stocked with rows tables and elegant banquet-style benches, each place attended to by at least two grouchy waiters. The food, sadly, wasn't so good (tough steaks, gooey fries) and, considering the price, I soon realized that what I was paying for was the idea of fancy Paris restaurant rather than an actual fancy Paris restaurant. Kind of a Thirteen Coins for the Seattlite, or a Lamb's Grill for the Utahn. This was a realization upheld by the clientele base: a heavy mixture of European and Asian tourists dusted with a light sprinkling of ancient Parisians, loyal to the end to their youthful haunt, or just too lazy to find a better place to eat.

One of the things I really loved about La Coupole, however, is the voyeuristic opportunities it affords its diners. Like most Parisian restaurants, there is literally NOSPACE between your table and the ones around it: in order NOT to eavesdrop, you either have to be dead, possessed of supernatural will power, or have the monumental self-absorption of Sarah Palin. That night I became particularly interested in the Japanese mother-daughter pair beside me, not only because the mother and I kept smacking our elbows into each other's purses, but because of the amusingly fraught interaction they had with the waiter. As the Japanese women clearly didn't know French, everyone dealing with them had to resort to English. And while we all know that there is a way to express yourself politely in English, we also know that it takes a bit of verbal doing to achieve this politeness. Verbal doing that neither the Japanese women, in particular the daughter, who was doing all the negotiating, nor the waiter had at their disposal. Added to this was the fact that the restaurant by this time had gotten quite noisy. What followed thus sounded a lot like this:

Waiter: "What do you WANT!?!"

Daughter: "We want OYSTERS!"

W: "You want WHAT?!"

D: "OYSTERS!? Now!?"

W: "No more! You CAN'T HAVE them!"

D: "Yes! We will have OYSTERS!"

W: "NO! You CAN'T HAVE them!"

D: "Give me curry!"

W: "Who wants curry!"

D (making gentle, back-and-forth gestures with her frond-like hands, to indicate splitting): "Look!"

Here I interrupt, to say, not helpfully to the waiter: "partager รก deux." Waiter ignores this.

W: "NO!"

D: "Curry!"


Daughter, giving mother despairing glance. "We take something?! One plate?!"


It was, if torturous, also kind of fun to watch two of the politest cultures in the world devolve into what was essentially a mutual verbal mugging. It made me wonder about the first English-esque exchanges in France. Picture grimy horde of Anglo Saxons stumbling off longboat onto misty shores of Normandy. Ancient Waiter, clad in rabbit furs: "What do you want?!?" Anglo-Saxons: "Women! Now!" Ancient Waiter, rending rabbit furs: "You CAN'T HAVE THEM!"

In the meantime, I indulged myself in planning out the readings I would get to hear in the coming weeks after French class: Harry Matthews on Monday, followed by Rae Armantrout on the 17th, then an all-weekend symposium on Gertrude Stein headlined by Charles Bernstein, Joan Retallack, and the inevitable Marjorie Perloff on the 20th. I sighed and bit into my first tarte tatin. Here it is, folks:

Looks delicious, right? And don't I feel like a jerk having to tell you it wasn't very good. (Crust cold. Apples gummy.) But, quelle surprise, I still ate the whole thing.

Daughter, pointing to my dessert, gesturing at waiter: "That is a how made?!?"

Waiter, lunging toward her, scowling: "RUINED TART!"

Me, muttering under my breath: "Don't you know it."

Daughter, tearful: "No! No!"

And so it goes. Still, I want to thank Angie for the suggestion: it was a treat to get an old slice (only a little older than the tart) of Paris. And I also want to thank Shidasha, Elizabeth, PT Cruiser and Brian for the suggestions. Shidasha: Will start speaking more to folks around town, to see how willing they are to converse. My experience so far is that folks outside the immediate tourist zone are willing to talk, and sometimes forever. Especially about mustard. (Long story.) Elizabeth: I LOVE this idea! Will try and pick some 19th C woman and figure out where she went. Someone unusual, but not obscure. I'll get back to you on this. PT: Already got this idea in place. I have the letters and just have to come up with some reason to get in there so as to "pass" the interview. I'm thinking that I might be able to get Elizabeth's suggestion and yours to intersect in some interesting way. Updates soonish. Brian: Consider it done. I've been looking forward to going to this center, and this gives me a good reason to get there sooner rather than later.

Thanks again, all!


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