Sunday, October 10, 2010

Longer pieces: Traveling on Our Stomachs

from “A Perfectly Logical Explanation” published and copyright by the Kalamazoo Gazette 2002
Chapter 16: “Traveling on Our Stomachs”

There are many reasons to go to Paris. It is, of course, the city of writers, and ever since college I wanted to visit the inspirational source of Fitzgerald and Joyce and home of Hemingway’s moveable feast.
It is the city captured in evocative black and white in the New Wave movies of Truffaut and Godard — tragic little Antoine dodging down side streets with his stolen typewriter in The Four Hundred Blows, sly Jean-Paul Belmondo trying to charm sexy Jean Seberg along les Champs, as he calls it, in À bout de Souffle (Breathless). For those images, I loved Paris even before I ever went there.

There is the art — more art than you can see in beaucoup journeys to this city. In just one wing alone of one museum, the Louvre, for example, you can find the expansive masterworks of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Jacques-Louis David’s massive (deep breath now) The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Josephine.Good gosh, before capitulation to the euro, the French even printed pastel illustrations of the Little Prince on their currency.
The city also boasts neighborhoods of diverse cultural and architectural tastes — the elegant Champs-Elysées, the bohemian Rue Mouffetard market area, the trendy-yet-homey Marais, the cafés along the Boulevard Saint-Germaine ….
There are all these admirable reasons to make a trip to Paris.
But my wife and I mainly go there to shop.
OK, I admit that sounds so … so déclassé. But I’ve gotten a jazzy charge every time we’ve been in Paris — invariably a matter of weeks before Christmas — and the major department stores, festooned in white and gold, are packed with bustling shoppers, and the display windows of Au Bon Marché, Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Samaritaine are animated with jolly blue and red stuffed marionettes acting out cheery holiday pageants — decorating trees and hanging festive lights, baking Christmas dinners, gift-wrapping toys — to entertain the entranced children out on the sidewalks.
Paris is a retail mecca. If you want it, surely you can find it — or probably something much, much better — in this city.
Truth be told, all that shopping also can work up an appetite. And, as my wife, the professional restaurant reviewer and food writer, has said more than once, she sees no point in going somewhere on vacation to have a bad meal.
Virtually every repast we’ve enjoyed in the so-called City of Light has been — in a  word — excellent. They were wonderful. They were beyond perfection.
Even the dinner we finally were served at one Rumanian restaurant on our most recent visit wasn’t actually terrible. It’s just that, by the time the food was placed in front of us, I admit I was in a pretty enfant terrible kind of mood.
We’d tried at first to get into a Russian restaurant across the street, only a few blocks from oseventh arrondisment. (We always have stayed in the seventh district — in different hotels but always along Rueler, because that street has a food market. That way Lisa can get up early in the morning and go down to select fresh items for her breakfast … and I can do what I perceive to be a key requirement of any vacation: sleep.)
Inside the Russian restaurant were a handful of servers … and absolutely no customers. One of the servers asked if we had a reservation. I looked around. At that moment I couldn’t recall the exphrase for “Are you kidding?” in French.
So we wandered across the way to a tiny Rumanian eatery that indeed was serving a few patrons. At the door, I performed one of my favorite tasks while in Paris — asking for a table (“Une table pour deux, s’il vous plait, madame?”), which ranks near the top with cashing traveler’s checks (“Puis-je encaisser des cheque de voyage ici?”).
It was dark inside, and as our eyes adjusted we could see this was truly a tiny restaurant — tiny in a city known for tiny restaurants.
Now, yes, it is a fact service in Europe is generally slow by American standards. After all, monsieur and madame, you are supposed to savor the dining experience.
But in this establishment I noted that after we had been waiting a good twenty-five minutes, we still had not received anything beyond beyond our beverages.
More tables filled up. And, as everyone in Paris believes cigarettes to be not only handed down but ordained by God himself, the air was becoming thick with smoke.
On the other hand, the music being piped in over the speaker system — American pop — had been changed over to what we presumed was Rumanian. So we — or as far back as we could move at our very small table — and waited.
And waited.
The challenge for the restaurant server we noticed, was now becoming circumnavigating the crowded tables. The help, it appeared, consisted entirely of a mother, whos, we noticed, was now becoming one of circumnavigating the crowded tables. The help, it appeared, consisted entirely of a mother, who was also the cook, and her daughter. They began passing miniature baskets of bread over customers’ heads.
The father then arrived, saw so many people did not have their entrées and began yelling at his daughter. (As I say, we speak no Rumanian, but we couldssed in gown and tiara, who began singing in Rumanian.
He did not turn off the music from the speaker.
More people crowded in. More cigarette smoke. More jostling.
Still no food.
Then in through the front marched twenty-four — I counted them — men and women of various ages. The older man at the front end of the line — it was so jampacked in there by then, the newcomers had to stay in a line, from the front door to the back kitchen door — held up his left hand and loudly proclaimed something that sounded like, “Bros kenacuff, ad mendin ma dinkenuff.”
And with that, all twenty-four burst into boisterous song, what we took for Christmas caroles in Rumanian.
Mind you, the TV was still on, the elderly woman still singing and the overhead speaker was still blaring away.
At the end of the song, some diners applauded, many continued the shouted conversations they’d tried to maintain throughout the entertainment.
More customers came in. More smoke. Still no food.
The lead singer announced another another song, and again his troupe burst into their rendition of … whatever it was they were singing.
Somewhere around their fourth or fifth song — the mother occasionally would pop her head out around the kitchen door, frown, then retreat — five musicians, with horns and, I swear, an accordion, entered. Or as best they could. Two couldn’t squeeze in and had to stand in the doorway, propping open the door.
The carolers cheered. Then  two dozen singers and the five musicians joined forces and launched into more very emphatic music. The waitress — the owners’ daughter — by this time abandoned any pretense at serving tables and started takinas also the cook
 photos of one of the musicians in particular. Her boyfriend, no doubt, given how she beamed at him.
Soon beer was handed out to the carolers and the racket resumed.
I’ve no idea how long it was before we received our food. I do remember the carolers were still there when he managed to extract ourselves from the restaurant.
I couldn’t even tell you what I had to eat. But I doubt the meal caused the headache I had as we stumbled back to our hotel.


For the record, I did not want the tart. I said at the time I did not want the tart. “Non,” I said.
But Lisa clearly desired something or other to go with her coffee and, she said, you like rhubarb and we’re on vacation after all.
So we ordered the tart. Lisa asked for the cheese platter for her and the rhubarb tart for me.
The waiter brought the cheese platter and an apple tart. Lisa noticed. She made him take back the apple tart and bring the rhubarb.
This is what Lisa and I later referred to as tempting fate. We had messed with the time lines.
After we finished our coffee and food, we took a bus to our hotel on Avenue de la Motte-Picquet. I recall it was raining. I also recall that the bus had moved merely a few blocks from the café when my stomach started to lurch. And then it churned. Then I started feeling these repeated, sharp stabbing pains.
By the time we arrived at our hotel, I was sick. Really, verily sick.
Now you should know I hardly ever become ill. Practically never. And lord knows I’ve ingested all sorts of manner of things over the years and not been affected. (Well, no more than intended.)
But that night was awful. I did not go to the hospital, but it was under serious consideration, let me tell you.
Before morning we concluded I was suffering from food poisoning. Lisa noted that the infamous rhubarb tart back at the café had had a custard base, and that it must have “gone bad,” as she said … as if we were discussing some wayward cousin of mine.
A day or so later I was
feeling somewhat better. That is, I could stand upright. But I still wasn’t up for eating anything. (I wasn’t to have another full meal for a couple weeks, in fact.)
We went out for short strolls, but — having essentially no energy whatsoever — I mostly sat down every chance that happened along.
By Saturday, our last full day in Paris, I managed to eat a half of a piece of bread.
But also by that time — as if by some cruel weird-beyond-belief fool trick — Lisa had developed what we later learned was the flu. We don’t really know how, but there we were.
The weather had cleared and, as it was apparent Lisa was going to sleep all day and there was little I could do for her, I recalled I had seen along les Champs earlier in the week (before our vacation fiasco struck) that the newly released movie Shadow of the Vampire — L’Ombre du Vampire — with Willem Dafoe was playing and, even better, that it was in English with French subtitles.
So, bidding adieu to my sleeping spouse, I dragged myself over t tto the nearby metro stop and rode over to les Champs.
In Paris, at least along les Champs, the booths where they sell movie tickets aren’t necessarily where the actual movie house is. So I bought my ticket at the booth, sat down to rest for about twenty minutes or so, then went up the street several doors until I found the actual salon.
There was no one at the entrance, so I pushed my way in. Down this long hall, around a bend, down another long hall. And there, at the far end, I could see a concession stand and the same garcon who had sold me my ticket earlier. He seemed to be waiting just for me, smiling, and he motioned for me to come ahead: “Ici, monsieur.”
He tore my ticket and pointed to a door at the other end of the room. So I went through and walked down this narrow hallway that went on and on, turning slightly every so often.
I noticed it definitely was going downhill, and getting narrower. I also became aware of it getting darker, as there were less light bulbs the farther I went. Soon, there was no light at all, and I actually could touch both sides of the hall without stretching my arms out hardly at all.
Eventually I could see in the distance a diminutive rectangle of light, at slightly below eye level. I kept walking … and banged smack into what I came to understand was the door to the actual movie house auditorium itself. After some thought, I pushed it open, went in and sat down.
Very soon, the lights went down and commercials started, about twenty minutes worth (I timed them), mostly with tanned young naked women selling all manner of innocent things — wristwatches, automobiles. Then the lights went back up and we waited another fifteen minutes or so for the movie finally to commence.
On the way back our hotel, I realized it was getting on to rush hour, as this was a Saturday and in the full rush of Christmas shopping. The metro trains were packed — I mean, the platforms were completely full, people were mobbed way up back even onto the stairwells and it seemed no one got off thtrains, and you hato push and squeeze to get on.
Which I managed to do eventually. But a few stops later, a quartet of Italians somehow made their way onto the crush of my car — I knew they were Italians because they actually said “Mama mia” — and started shoving. There wasn’t much room for this sort of behavior and, as I was weak from not eating in days, I was starting to feel dizzy again.
Our train jumped forward, moving through the tunnel. The shouting and pushing resumed and the inevitable happened, as we knew it would: With a second jolt of the train, a whole wave of passengers fell backward — WHAM — domino-like, and down I went, helplessly sandwiched among them.
Some kind Parisians propped me up. Which was fortunate as I was considering up until that moment that maybe the whole thing was an hallucination.
Somehow I slowly but not necessarily surely trudged back to our hotel. Lisa was awake and I told her of my adventure. I was not certain she believed me.
We have returned to Paris since that food-poisoning occurrence. And we’ve had a great time.
But I stay away from those French tarts. And I advise you to do the same.

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