They Don’t Eat Bacon in France, Do They?

My darling wife S. and I have just returned from a delightful, but tiring  holiday in Europe which began with two days in Paris at our standby hotel, the Bristol.  There’s almost nothing one can say that’s bad about Le Hotel Bristol except that the prices are so high, one can get a nosebleed just walking in the lobby.  But I knew this before I got there.

Also, let me say at the outset that I like french food, I like french wine, I like french women, I like french art.  Heck,  I’m pretty much an out and out francophile.  I’ve struggled with french irregular verbs without ever mastering them for years.  Even today, your average frenchman will immediately grimace when I mangle the language.  But I draw the line at breakfast.  I dunno what the deal is but the french don’t eat breakfast.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  They do wolf down a croissant and sip a teeny cup of coffee about the consistency and taste of high grade drilling mud.  At the Bristol this will set you back Forty five Euros ($58.00).  Ok, they give you the option of some juice and a great pat of french butter for the croissant, but I’m not having it.  I need eggs.  I need meat and some toast to sop up the egg juices, and a big cup of coffee.  In theory, they have this at the Bristol as well.   They call it their “American Breakfast”.  So what they do is put everything in it that they won’t eat, charge an even more exorbitant price, a cool walking sixty Euros ($77.05), under the theory that if Americans are crazy enough to eat this stuff, they’ll pay up for it as well.

And I did.  Let me tell you what I got, or actually, what I tried to get.  Two eggs over medium, bacon, plain white toast, a glass of skim milk (one has to make concessions somewhere), and a big cup of black coffee with Splenda.  Easy, huh.  You could get this at any drive in, diner or dive in the US of A for $6.95 or less.  Here’s what I got for my four the equivalent of four twenty dollar bills.  A porcelain pot of weak, luke warm coffee (which they call “Ameican” coffee) and a cup about the size of a medium mixing bowl with large, irregularly shaped chunks of brown sugar that took twenty minutes to dissolve.  The eggs were only partially cooked sunny side up…the whites and yellows still running, accompanied by a mini-baguette that had been not-quite toasted whole.  And the piece de resistance, a bowl of bacon on the side.  Oh yes, I did get the milk which was almost the consistency (and fat content) of cream cheese.  Back to the bacon.  I understand that you shouldn’t expect a lot when you order bacon outside of the US.  Based on my experience in ordering bacon around the world (which is considerable), one should not expect what we get in Des Moines or Dallas.  So I had relatively low expectations, but the gob of curled strips of grease soaked stuff they called bacon did not even measure up to that low standard.  And it was cold, or almost cold.  The whole kaboodle of stuff was delivered by a small army of perfectly coiffed and dressed waiters on hundred dollar china with a great flourish.  The food tasted pretty much like it looked.  I slathered some quite good jelly on the bun and made do.

My secret revenge was that my travel agent of long standing, had, unbeknownst to me, negotiated a deal with the hotel that included the price of breakfast.  Hah!  I didn’t have to pay for the bacon I couldn’t eat.

That evening before dinner, my darling wife and I had a drink at the bar before dinner.  I ordered my usual potion of vitamin G and Tonic.  The G and T only had about a thimble of G, but I expected that.  After all, they only charged me twenty nine Euros ($37.25).  Needless to say, I didn’t have a second.

The moral of the story:  If you want to eat and drink like you do at home, stay at home, but if you go anyway, avoid, at all costs, any food or drink with “American” in the name.


It Was Bound to Happen

It was bound to happen. You can’t go this many days without it. A mini-meltdown. No, not the kids. Me. I had a mini-meltdown in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.  I have my reasons, but as I recount them they don’t seem to fully justify my behavior. First of all….it’s hot in Paris. I mean really hot. This is the hottest, driest spring they’ve had since 1901, or so I’m told. Paris is crammed to the brim with people. I know it’s the front end of the high season, and it’s the finals of the French Open. To the French, that’s more important than our Super Bowl and World Series in one. And they’ve come from all over just to be close to it. Throw in thousands of Germans, Italians, Brits, Brazilians, Aussies, Chinese, etc, etc etc. you get the idea.

Our Chunnel trip from London went off without a hitch. In fact, it was too short. Very comfortable, good seats and good service on and off the train. We arrived at Gare du Nord, changed Pounds Sterling into Euros and found a taxi line of six hundred people with four taxis standing by. I looked across the street and saw a row of mini vans (Mercedes, of course) with signs saying Libre. Let me assure you, they may have been free, but they weren’t cheap. Ninety five Euros for a ten minute ride to the Westin Hotel. A small rip off, but it portended things to come. We settled in and planned our itinerary for the next day.

The plan was to get up early and be at the door when the Musee d”Orsay opened. Well, S. didn’t get Georgia out of bed at the appointed time, a long shower, and the hotel buffet for petit dejeuner got us to the door of the d’Orsay at 10:00…..well, not actually at the door, it was about two thousand people from the door. We waited in line fifteen minutes and moved twelve feet. I called it quits and moved on to the next item on our agenda…..the Bataux Mouche.  Another line, not long, but as you are aware the French do not understand queuing. In less than five minutes, I was in a barely contained argument with a nasty French lady for jumping the queue. All around me people were cheering me on to no avail. I got my tickets finally and headed for the boarding area. No line here, just a mass of people milling around. I cased the situation and picked where I thought boarding would occur. It did not. I used my sharp elbows though and got us to some decent seats. The boat’s maximum is nine hundred. There were at least twelve hundred on board, none of whom had seen the inside of a shower stall for some time. I had picked choice aisle seats on the top level so we would have the best views. Immediately upon casting off, a hoard of Chinese lined up on the rail to take photos and completely blocked our view. You can imagine how I reacted. Needless to say, the rail space next to our seats was the only clear rail space on the boat. We got great views of Notre Dame and a swarm of plastic bottles in the Seine.

Our next stop was the Ile de Cite starting at Place St. Michelle and ending after lunch and a short stroll to Notre Dame. We found a cafe with great al fresco seats across from the Ministry of Justice on Rue St. Michelle. A very nice young waiter brought me a large beer that I didn’t order, but drank greedily in spite of knowing it would accelerate my never ending hunt for les toilettes. I had a wonderful platter of cheese, sauccisons, dried ham, and a green salad. S., Georgia and Hud all ordered Croque Monsieur.  Hud turned his sandwich inside out and ate it all as well as the large order of chips (fries). S. dove right in and finished it off without hesitation. Georgia took one look, took the ham out and admitted that she hated ham.  She took a bite of the remaining melted cheese and put it aside as well, but she did eat all the chips and drank the coke. As we strolled towards Notre Dame, I tried to give a short description of the church, it’s architecture, and it’s history, which no one cared about or listened to. Georgia and Hudson were discussing the finer points of some digital game, and S. was calling for me to slow down. We arrived at the plaza in front of the cathedral and were greeted by roughly a million people in a serpentine line several miles long. That’s when it happened. The mini-meltdown that is. I broke out in a cold sweat. My eyes narrowed into slits. I snarled at a young couple with a stroller blocking my way. I couldn’t stand it.  I had to get out of there. I headed for the taxi queue nearby, only to see the last taxi drive away while I was urging S. and Hudson to cross the street. She was delayed while explaining flying buttresses to Hudson. I sprinted thirty yards to grab another taxi and demanded that S., Hudson and Georgia get in immediately or I was out of there…. alone.  We drove silently back to the Westin where I learned that there is a surcharge for the 4th passenger in a small taxi, but not in a large taxi. Let’s see…pay another 2.95 Euros to be have my knees jammed into my chin in a front seat coated with bits and pieces of the drivers last lunch.

We made it to our rooms without further incident, and I announced that I was taking a nap and expected no interruptions. To add emphasis, I threw a map and Paris guide book on the bed and told Hud and G. to figure out what they wanted to do next.  I was done with taking them to places that had huge lines and that they had no interest in. There.  I showed them. You can’t take Pops for granted.  I watched a show on French Canal 5 about a group if guys building a tree house in Costa Rica. It was translated from Spanish, to English to French. I enjoyed it immensely until I fell asleep (after about ninety seconds).  I woke refreshed with the mini-meltdown well behind me. S., Hud, and Georgia were congregated in the other room. I approached them sheepishly. They handed me a list (in priority order) of what they wanted to see. We gathered our stuff and set out to see the Arc de Triomphe. Another great day traveling with grandkids in Europe.

What is it about the French?

I’ve been to France thirty, forty, maybe fifty times over the last forty years.  S. and I even rented a house in the south of France one summer long ago.  I’ve studied the language off and on ever since I made a weak C in French 101 my freshman year in college.  I’ve bought French companies, and I’ve sold French companies.  I’ve had 100’s, if not 1000’s, of French employees over the years.  I know my French history pretty well and collected more than a few pieces of French art.  Hell, I even gave a speech in French at the opening of one our our facilities in the environs of Paris.  I’ve admired French wine, ogled French women, stuffed myself with French food, and generally admired things French.  I’m about as close as one could get to being a francophile without actually being one.  But there are some things that I’ll never understand about the French.  Lemme give you a couple of examples.

Bathrooms, WC’s, toilettes….whatever you want to call them.  What’s the deal with them.  First of all the French have this idea that men and women should do their business pretty much cheek to jowl.  Second, the gender proximity wouldn’t be so bad except that the average French biffy occupies about 1.5 square meters (that’s about fifteen square feet for all of you non-euros).  And that wouldn’t be so bad except that there’s always at least three people in the space….you, the lady waiting for the stall to be free, and the large French matron collecting the small fee for…well, I don’t know what she’s collecting it for.  Third, the johns are always upstairs.  I have a little problem climbing any stairs, and the French always use tiny circular stairways.   The good news is that there’s not enough room to fall.  Most of their toilettes aren’t actually dirty, not Chinese toilet dirty, but they’re not exactly clean either, so I always turn on the faucet with my elbow and dry my hands on my pants.  For all their attention on architecture, they seem to have pretty much ignored this most necessary of facilities.  I’ll bet they would get giddy in a standard Seven Eleven bathroom.  They probably would want to sleep in there.

Taxis.  This one’s a little difficult to get overly wrought up about because of the language thing.  You know….we’ve all had the time when we explained slowly and loudly in our best imitation of an American speaking French.  Prennez-moi aux Tour Eiffel and you wind up at the Gare du Nord.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about size, fare calculation, and well, I guess I’m also talking about the language thing.  Your average Parisian taxi is no more than six feet long and five feet wide. You can get an idea from the photo above.  It’s works ok if there are only two of you trying to go somewhere and both are under five feet four and weigh less than 120 pounds.  After that it becomes difficult nigh on to impossible.  To make it worse, every driver uses the front passenger seat for his personal office file/luggage rack/dust bin/dinning space.  In the old days, no taxi in Paris would allow more than three passengers.  I don’t know if it was a rule or they just wouldn’t do it.  Now after hailing a taxi, one must announce that there will be four passengers.  The driver may give a snort and a Gallic shrug and drive off, or maybe he will give a Gallic shrug and begin clearing the front passenger seat.  Depending on the amount of debris, he may have to get out and store some items in the boot.  You can imagine that this does not put him in a positive frame of mind.  With my knees under my chin I might say, “je voudrais aller a la hotel Westin, sil vous plait”.  He most likely will say, “eh?”  I repeat it several times louder and slower until at last he says, “ah, voila, la hotel West-een.”  Upon arrival at the destination begins the kabuki theatre of the fare calculation. “Comment ca coute?”, I say.  He says something completely unintelligible in return.  I give him a twenty euro note and hope for something back.

Eating.  This is really a big deal in France.  But what’s the deal with all the tiny tables outside.  The weather matters not one whit.  The French will be reading their Figaro, eating a funky cheese sandwich, and washing it down with a double espresso.  We, of course, will be trying to imitate the French.  I’ve not yet quite figured out the difference between a bistro and brasserie…well, that’s not quite true.  I know that prices in a bistro are high and in a brasserie they are higher.    When I say higher, I mean nose bleed high.  I’m almost inured to the eight dollar cokes, and I don’t now blanch at nine dollar scoop of ice cream, but I’m drawing the line at at twenty six dollar gin and tonic, particularly when they charge you another seven dollars for the tonic.  It’s absolutely un-American.  Ok, enough with the prices.  They’re over the top, but what are you going to do.

Let’s talk about the food.  There’s a lot to talk about here, and I’m not going to bore you with a lot of details, but it’s important for you to know that the French eat everything.  By everything, I mean every part of every animal.  When I say every, I mean every.  Did you know that there’s a restaurant law that requires every French restaurant to have snails on the menu.  Now, I like snails (escargot) and even ordered them once on this trip, but on every menu?  The only other explanation I can think of is that there is a plague of snails somewhere in France, and they’re trying to get rid of them by foisting them off on tourists who think that you’re supposed to eat them when in France.

S.and I celebrated our 47th wedding anniversary on our last day in Paris, and I thought to celebrate by deviating from our grandkid imposed diet of steak frites and pizza by going to an upmarket brasserie for a “coup de champagne” and a good, traditional French meal.  I did my research and decided to avoid the old standards like Brasserie Lipp and Hippopotamus.  I wanted authentic.  I ignored the advice of the concierge (who hadn’t done very good so far) and relied on the modern traveler’s new friend  The problem with internet user reviews is that even if it rates overall a 4.5 out of 5.0 there will always be one or two outliers that will go something like this.  “My frogleg starter needed seasoning, and the duck confit was slightly overdone, but when the owner’s dog crapped under our table…..”, or “the food was ok, but these French waiters are arrogant a**holes.  I  asked for a chicken fried steak and a root beer, and they completely ignored me.”  Le Vaudville was a well regarded brasserie/bistro/restaurant within walking distance of our hotel with generally good reviews which suggested we would find traditional fare and a mix of local and tourist clients.  Things started well with the celebratory champagne.  It was a strong plus that our waiter spoke (and presumably understood) English very well.  We got the steak frites for the grandkids thing out of the way, and I asked for their specialities.  He said, “monsieur, we are well known for our Cow’s Head”.  I thought….your cow’s head what.  Cow’s Head, cow’s head…surely not.  I couldn’t think of anything to say, and I was hoping that S. had not heard him at all.  I suggested the foie gras and moules to S. and I ordered, you guessed it, duck confit and cabbage.  So, I had picked a restaurant to celebrate our 47th anniversary only to find that their speciality was Cow’s Head.  Only in France.  Remember they eat more goose liver than the whole rest of the world.

Actually it wasn’t that bad.

Just kidding, of course.

You gotta love the French.

Oh Paree, I Thought I Knew Ye

Any one who thinks they have the ability to understand a culture other than their own is a fool.  I remember an old asian hand, who after several miso wari’s (scotch and waters for you non-old asian hands), opined about a common malady of expats who had stayed too long.  We called it asian fever, and it happens in other areas of the world as well.  He told me that perfect comprehension of the Oriental culture came only when one finally realized that he would never understand.

It’s relatively easy to apply that wisdom to eastern cultures, where things really look different, but we often fail to understand that it applies equally to places where things on the surface seem and look like they do in the good old US of A.  As I had the experience of doing business and living in different parts of the world, I was often asked, “what’s the most difficult country in the world to live/work/do business in?”  I always immediately responded, “France”.  “France”, they would say.  “What about Japan, China, Mexico?”.  “Nope, it’s France”.  “Why”, they would ask.  “It’s simple”, I slyly rejoindered.  “White socks”.  “In no other culture in the world would a business man wear white socks with their business suit”.  (nb.  I did see some guys in Croatia a couple of years ago with white socks, but I think they were actually Russian mafia so they really don’t count as businessmen.)

Don’t get me wrong I love the French, and I even love most things French, but they are difficult, very difficult to get along with even if you want to.  The reason is simple.  They think they are always right….about everything.  And they are better.  Their food is better.  Their wine is certainly better.  Their art is superior.  Their designs are more fashionable.  Their way of doing things should be the model for everyone, if only we were smart enough to understand.  So if a fellow decides to wear white socks with his Armani suit, it must be a statement of fashion superiority and not be criticized.

One area in which they do have clear superiority….bureaucracy.  Their government bureaucrats can out bureaucrat any bureaucrat in the world.  Let me give a recent, personal example.  In preparing for this trip, my able assistant, T., came across a pile of French francs in the files.  When I say pile, I mean a pile.  I can’t now imagine why I would have toted them back from one or more of my trips, but I did.  As I am tending to get tighter with the purse strings as I age, I quickly referred to my knowledgeable-in-all-things friend Mr.Google.  Google informed me that, yes, they could still be converted to Euros and even gave me the exchange rate.  Happy days.  A windfall that might well pay expenses for my Paris holiday.  To be fair, even Google warned that I would have to report to the Banc de France and fill out some forms.

At the first free moment, me, with an envelope stuffed full of francs, and S. (who came along only grudgingly) made a bee line for the venerable Banc de France, only to find out there are two of them.  One on the left bank (rive gauche) for you francofiles, and one on the right bank.  I had a 50/50 chance of picking the right one.  Nope, it was the left bank.  We found the left bank Banc of France which happily was in St. Germain du Pres…one of my favorite areas, and prepared to turn old paper into new money.  But the door to the bank wouldn’t open, and it looked awfully dark inside, but I thought I saw movement.  I tried knocking to draw their attention.  No luck.  Then I saw the small brass plaque with instructions to “sonner la cloche…”.  I didn’t know what cloche was but I was pretty sure sonner was to ring, and there was a button near by, so I sonnered la cloche.  The door opened, S. and I stepped in, the door closed, but the opposing door did not open.  We were trapped in a glass box.  Again the brass plaque.  (Why would anyone put ring the bell instructions on a brass plaque?…see the paragraphs above).  I rang, and the second door opened into a cavernous semi-dark room which at first I thought to be empty of people.

My eyes adjusted, and I saw a man in a short sleeve white shirt and black tie (see paragraph on white socks above) with numerous imposing signs of instruction in front of him.  None were in brass.  I ignored the signs and dumped my envelope of francs on the counter in front of him.  Without a blink, he started slowly, and I mean slowly sorting them into two piles.  One which he labeled oui, and the other non.  Each time he put one in the pile, non, he shook his head, so I was getting the idea that these were not going to pay for my wine tonight.  The non pile was about twice the oui pile, but they all looked the same to me.  I started to ask, but nah, I thought, if I said, “pourquoi?, I wouldn’t understand the answer, and he might move more of the notes to the non pile.  After he tidied up the piles he handed me a form with detailed questions on two sides.  All in french, of course.  I guessed what I could, ignored what I couldn’t translate.  It took about five minutes.  I handed it back to him, he shoved it back to me and pointed to a bench on the other side of the room.  He waived me back to him, handed me a small slip of paper with the number 50-17 on it and pointed again to the bench.  The rest was easy.  I waited until my number came up, took the form and my francs and with my best “bon jour madame (she was definitely a madame), handed them to her through a security slot.  She read the form, clucked several times, punched numbers into a machine and gave me two more forms to sign.  When I returned the forms, she counted the money once again and put it through the slot.  With a polite merci madame, I headed for the door.

Maybe they are superior after all.

In Paris They Speak French, Don’t They ?

Let me sum up Paris for you in a word.  C’est magnifique.  Well, that’s two words I guess.  No, really it’s three words.  And that’s part of the problem.  They speak a very funny language here.  It’s sounds good, but it’s impossible to understand, and, god forbid, don’t try to speak it to them.

Those of you who know me well, know that I am a bit of a striver for languages, particularly French. I’ve spent more money and time conjugating irregular verbs and trying to understand the subjunctive vs. indicative moods than anyone I know.  Alas, it’s all been for naught.  My two semesters of college study. My eighteen months of twice weekly tutoring by a very comely french maestra in London, two months of morning visits from a local professeur when we stayed in the south of France for the summer, and hundreds of hours of self study.  The result….not only can no french person understand me, it’s more likely than not that they will understand something entirely different than that which I thought I said.

Por ejemplo, no, that’s Spanish isn’t it.  Ok, par exemple…..we we doing the tourist thing visiting the Tour Eiffle (see how I worked in the French rendition), after waiting in a long, long line I approached the clerk with considerable linguistic bravado having had more than sufficient time to compose my forthcoming conversation with the ticket seller.  “Bon jour madmoiselle” I said with an entirely American smile.  Then I panicked.  She wasn’t really young, but I couldn’t see a wedding ring.  But then again, she wasn’t old.  She was kind of in the middle.  Should it have been “bon jour madame”? How was one to know for sure?  Did I offend her by misstating her demographic.  Perhaps I had gotten off to a bad start.   I plunged ahead.  I had translated the sign overhead and knew that there were different prices according to which level one desired to go.  I knew S. would want to go to the top so I said, “Je voudrais, deux billets, sil vous plait,…”.  I was certain I had nailed the sil vous plait, but I had used first person conditional of the verb vouloir (to want) thinking that I wanted to be polite without being obsequious, but then again, maybe I should have said, je veux, which is first person present tense which translates as a more direct request as in I want.  One of my many instructors said one can never go wrong being too polite so je voudrais it is.  Deux billets for two tickets seemed safe, but perhaps I should have clarified, “billets pour deux personnes”.  Nah, it’s clear one would only buy two tickets for two people so deux personnes would have been redundant.

I plowed on to the more difficult part.  I wanted to go to the top, the third level according to the instructions, so I needed to indicate that in the completion of my sentence.  My brain froze.  I could not think of the word for level in French.  Hmm….what I needed was a work around.  You can’t stump us clever Americans.  I would use “etage” as a substitute.  Etage means floor as in the first floor of your house.  What I wanted was third floor because floor three (etage trois) sounded stilted.  So I settled on troisieme, but it had to come after etage, I thought.  I completed the sentence with much satisfaction and only the smallest of doubts.  “Bon jour madmoiselle.  Je voudrais deux billets pour etage troisieme.”  I handed her a one hundred Euro note which is my fall back for not being able to understand when they say the price.  She gave me my change and two tickets and pointed to another line.

It would only be a matter of time before we were on the top of the Tour Eiffel avec une view magnifique de toute de Paris.  We had to change elevators at the second level which meant another line which we braved after the obligatory photos.  As I passed my billets to yet another clerk, he grimaced and wagged a finger in my face then pointed away from the elevator.  Saying, “non, non, non”.  There was no mistaking his message.  We had the wrong tickets and were not allowed to go to the top.  I inspected the tickets to confirm my fear, and, yes, there it was.  A large two printed boldly in black.

How could I have gotten this result when I did everything right.  My French was well thought out and perfect grammatically.  Maybe a few problems with the accent, I guess.

C’est la vie pour un American en France.