Living in France for a number of years, my French has gotten pretty good. As long as I’m talking about food, that is.
Last night I was having dinner at Le Vin au Vert (70, rue de Dunkerque) wine bar with a few friends. One talks really quickly and with the noisy bobo patrons at the surrounding tables, chattering on les smartphones and getting up and down all night to race out into the sub-zero cold for a cigarette (at one point, there were more people outside than inside), it was hard to hear anything. So I really had to pay attention, and my attention wanes in direct proportion to how many bottles of wine have been emptied.
We were talking about a new clothing store that opened in Paris that, like me, is a transplant from a foreign country. I was saying how much I liked the store because it was easy to find (and buy) things, which a friend replied that they didn’t like the store because people were always asking her if she needed any help.
Honestly, it’s a tough point to argue. What does one say? So I changed the subject to food, and turned the conversation to the bakery that moved into the space where they used to make my much-missed “crack” sesame baguette. (Romain stored one in the freezer until we couldn’t stand it any more and finally ate it.)
The fellows that took over the bakery weren’t interested (or never got the formula) for the baguette sesame and although their baguettes and pain bio aren’t bad, it isn’t the same thing. But last week Romain ran out to get a baguette for breakfast and came back with two croissants as well; one for each of us.
I like croissants, but don’t often buy them because they’re best in the morning, when they’re still slightly warm and the buttery shell is still crackly-crisp, the ends slightly burnt. And when pulled apart, a soft whisper of steam comes out and the buttery interior invites a bit of jam or an additional dab of salted butter. I’m not fond of getting dressed in the morning and heading out the door, especially when the temperature is a robust -3º. So I usually have toasted bread and butter with my morning coffee.
When I took my first bite of one of their croissants, it was like eating thin sheets of butter barely bound together with some flour. I swear, I have no idea how they got so much butter into a croissant. Over dinner when we were talking about the bakery, the subject of the butter croissants came up and we were all in d’accord that the croissants were indeed, quite a feat of baking. They’re not the best croissants in Paris, but as a Parisian would say, they’re pas mal. Which actually means something is pretty good.
We didn’t speak of customer service again and finished our sausages, mashed potatoes, and second bottle of red wine before headed out, past the wall of smokers shivering in the cold, clutching their wine glasses and cigarettes, and I admired their fortitude for being able to stand there in the glacial night air, shivering and furiously puffing their cigarettes.
This morning I found myself at the Tati department store, waiting patiently next in line to buy a few rolls of gift wrap. There was a sizable queue behind me and the women in front of me was buying a pair of cordless headphones, presumably as a holiday gift. The woman at the register began questioning her at length on how cordless headsets work— “What powers them?”, “How does the sound transfer to the headset?”, “Is there a special plug they use?”…
The woman buying them didn’t know, she was just trying to get out of there like the rest of us. So with all of us waiting behind her, the cashier opened the box and started reading the instructions aloud, peppering her surveying of the pamphlet with observations about how they worked, then unwrapping the cord and checking the tips of the electrical plugs to see what shape and kind of metal they were.
Meanwhile I had my two rolls of 99 cent paper I wanted to buy, and I could feel the extremely long line of people that had accumulated behind me getting frustrated that the line was not only not advancing, but that the cashier didn’t really have any interest in moving us (or herself) along. After perhaps six or seven minutes of waiting for her to finish reading the booklet, I finally gave up: I put the paper down and headed for the door. I’m not sure if my friend from last night would have enjoyed waiting there in the long line in that stuffy store while the cashier unpacked the headphones for a through inspection of not only the instructions inside, but the packaging, the foam on the earpieces, as well as the base station for the headphones, but I’ll concede that the French have more fortitude than I, and I left.
(Actually my tipping point was when the woman’s credit card didn’t work and she didn’t have the €9.99 in cash to pay for the headphones, so she had to write a cheque. Which prompted a whole new round of discussions and the universally dreaded managerial approval.)
Before I left, I said a curt and faux cheery, “Merci Madame!” to the cashier. I wanted to add a few other choice words but I’ve realized that it doesn’t really matter to them if you’re happy or not. It’s not like they’ll get reprimanded or fired, so I just left and headed over to the bakery for a croissant, where the service was good. I chose the darkest crescent from the basket of warm croissants on the counter. The young man at the counter proudly (and promptly) wrapped up my buttery treat, and I headed home to enjoy it.
So maybe I should just do all my holiday shopping at the bakery. Now if I could only get them to make a few of those sesame baguettes, that would be the best holiday gift of all.