Thursday, June 2, 2016

Don't Touch the Bread! And Other Rules For Survival In France

Whatever you do, if you’re traveling to France, DON’T touch the bread basket when it arrives at your dinner table. That basket of sliced baguette heavenliness is not there to quiet the hunger beast growling in your belly. It is there to torment you. It is there to tease you. It is there to mock you. You’re starving, but you can’t eat. Not yet. It is placed there early to wait until your entrée arrives. And for the love of all things good and holy, DON’T ask for butter. Butter, you silly American fool, is for breakfast. 

These are some of the dining etiquette rules that we learned during our whirlwind trip through Parisian dining. We learned this in a quiet little restaurant on the Rue Cler called “Tribeca,” from a friendly waiter who was shocked and appalled to return to the table and find that the bread basket was half empty. We were really hungry. And apparently VERY American. Bread, you see, is for the meal. When your meal arrives at your table, you may eat bread; however, your bread does not sit on the edge of your plate, and no bread plates are given. Bread sits on the table next to your plate, where your knife and fork once sat. They don’t need to sit there any longer because they are in your hands, and YOU DON’T PUT THEM DOWN UNTIL YOU’RE FINISHED EATING. I think that’s a state crime if you do. No, you hold your knife and fork for as long as it takes to complete your meal. Then, and only then, do you place your utensils on an angle across the top right of your plate and use your hands to scratch that itch on your nose that has been killing you since the meal arrived, or take a sip of water.

My other dining etiquette faux pas came when a little waif of a cute, blond waitress almost slapped my hand for having the audacity to reach up and take the plate from her as she was preparing to place it in front of me. Silly me. I was eager. I was trying to be helpful. (Experienced waiters and waitresses, now is not the time to regale me with stories about “helpful” customers who screw things up. I really don’t care.) I was HUNGRY! She acted like I touched her fanny as she leaned over.  She pulled back and stared at me. When I placed my hands in my lap she smiled, placed the plate in front of me, and walked away. The Tribeca waiter explained to me that I was not allowing her to do her job, and allowing a waiter to do her or his job is very important. She’d never make it in the states.

After spending a week observing French customs I arrived at the conclusion that the French don’t go to the bathroom. At least not in public. Bathrooms don’t exist. If they do, they are not for customer use. You won’t find signs directing you to the bathrooms. You will not find nicely decorated, clean and well lit, multi-stall rooms with bowls of potpourri. There are no stalls for the handicapped or men dressed as women. If you venture off to find a facility, look for something about the size of a broom closet. I stood in a bathroom in a Toulon restaurant that was so small I accidentally turned off the light with my elbow two times while trying to unzip my pants. It was a night light hanging from a string. There was no sink. 

It was odd.  

The food was very good. I learned in France (and once again in Germany) that you should not try anything “American.” Not even out of curiosity. I’m usually very good at quickly identifying a meal that I will enjoy on any menu in any restaurant. Not in France. They have these ideas of what Americans like to eat based, I guess, on pictures in magazines or from TV shows. It has nothing to do with how ingredients taste when mixed together.  Imagine Ada’s birthday breakfast for me last year, “toast with strawberry jelly, a bowl of salad with Italian dressing, a glass of ice water, and a dill pickle.” On a bun.  That’s an American burger in France. You’ll enjoy licking the soles of your shoes after leaving a movie theater more than eating anything “American” in Europe.  Stick with French recipes for French dishes and you will eat well.

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