Half a lifetime ago I visited Paris regularly on business. I always arrived on a weekend and left the following one. European working customs as they were, Friday was always a half day off. I had plenty of time to wander and came to know the city very well.
Of course I did what all tourists do – when in Paris do as the Parisiens do, as they say. I trekked the Champs-Élysées from Place de La Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. But, one trip was enough. It’s a long, tiring, noisy walk. The air is always thick with Peugeot exhaust and cafe smoke from a million Gitanes. I occasionally went to The Louvre too, though I prefer the Musée d’Orsay or the small Musée Rodin near Les Invalides. And everyone watches the kids and has a croque madame in Tuileries.
There are hidden treasures too. A small cafe on a side street near the Louvre sold saucisson de Francfort (hot dogs) even better than the ones back home – the baguette and excellent moutarde were the secrets. The best glaces came from a small shop at the foot of the bridge onto Île Saint-Louis. The expat bookstore on Rue Rivoli had an excellent selection of English titles and plenty of talk for lonely Americans. And, the small garden behind Notre Dame is a gem – relaxing and usually empty of tourists and full of the scent of roses.
My business colleagues and I usually took walks around the city and ate dinner together after work. We’d choose random bistros when our feet began to ache and our eyes tired from the beauty. One evening we gathered on Montmarte and stood on the bright white steps of Sacré Cœur to watch the sun set behind the Tour d’Eiffel in the distance. The windows of Paris lit like fireflies and the smell of lamb and spices drifted up from the North African neighborhood below.
My favorite route down from Montmarte are the Les Escaliers de Montmartre made famous by photographer George Brassaï. The stairs end at Boulevard de Clichy, which eventually leads to the Red Light District at Place Pigalle near the Moulin Rouge. It’s a surprisingly pleasant walk – less seedy than you might think – though the tourist sex show windows can be eye-openers for the uninitiated. However, the boulevard has a number of good bistros and our group selected one hidden off the street in a quiet pensione courtyard.
Out front, an old man leaned back in a chair, drank wine, and whittled. There was a jug of red at his feet to last the evening. The surrounding red brick hung heavy with flags and crests from WWII Free-French regiments. In the gathering darkness, I could just make out the glint of old war medals on his dirty shirt and noticed he was minus a leg. When he heard me speak English he smiled brightly, gave me a thumbs up, and said, “Vive l’Américain!”
“Bienvenue! Bienvenue! Eliane, mon chéri!” he called to his wife and pointed the way inside.
Eliane was as dour as the old man was happy. She scowled with the derision Parisians hold only for foreigners. She shuffled to a table and made a great show of dusting off one of the chairs before wandering away in search of menus – or a hiding place – I wasn’t sure. She returned with food-stained menus only after repeated calls to the closed kitchen door.
Ordering was a classic study in cultural différence. The old woman refused to except orders in English, Dutch, German, Italian, or Spanish. Likewise, she shunned pointing at the menu and feigned confusion at French spoken with anything less than perfect diction. My very embarrassed French friend finally handled the orders in her native tongue. As the old woman walked away she muttered under her breath, in clear English, “arseholes.”
The dishes came slowly, even by glacial French standards. But, the wine was good and my cassoulet surprisingly delicious. The others enjoyed their cassoulet too. We talked quietly as our glasses filled and refilled and the candles burned down.
It was late and time to leave, but several of us wanted to finish things off with a café and glaces.
Three Scoops of Ice Cream
The place offered three flavors – vanillé, pistache, and chocolat. To avoid problems, my friend ordered in French. She asked for one scoop of each flavor for each of the three of us. The old woman looked at us with utter disdain. Her face was a reminder that we were indeed “arseholes” in her book.
Suddenly, a volley of rapid fire French broke out between my friend and the old woman. She was clearly upset and pantomimed a game of shell and pea. My friend mimed back and pointed to each person in turn while saying, “Un et un et un?” (One and one and one?).
Old Eliane said, “Oui” and my friend heaved the heavy sigh of someone faced with the gross stupidity of the uncooperative. The old woman simply scowled and crossed her hands in defiance.
“She says it’s impossible to order one scoop of each flavor on the same plate. However if we’d like, we can exchange scoops so everyone gets what they want. She just won’t do it for us.” The old woman, remembering her hidden English again, nodded in agreement.
“What? Why?” we asked.
“I’m not sure. She just says it’s an affront and refuses. I can’t change her mind.”
“Do you want to leave?”
We wanted ice cream so we voted to stay and see things through. My friend said, “Oui” and sent the old woman on her way.
‘She Can be an Arsehole Sometimes, but I Love Her’
She returned with three plates of semi-solid ice cream, three identical flavors on each plate. We began the insane exchange as the old woman walked away with, I swear, a grin on her face.
We paid the bill, collected our things, and headed for the door talking about what happened. No one, not even our French friend, had ever seen anything like it. We were all stumped.
The old man was still outside the door. His jug of red was depleted and he’d whittled his stick to a nub.
“Bon nuit!” he called cheerfully with another thumbs up. Then, he said something very quietly to our friend.
As we headed for the Metro, we asked about the message.
“He said he loves those who fought for France during the war and would do anything for them,” she explained. “Then he asked me, ‘Did she do the ice cream thing to you?”
“When I said yes he said, ‘I am so sorry. She does the same thing to me and I am her husband.”
“Then he said in English, ‘She can be an arsehole sometimes, but I love her.”
- 10 Irresistible Paris Pastries (and where to eat them) (theflyingfugu.com)
- Anise Ice Cream (sweetnothingsnyc.com)
- Stuff You Didn’t Know About Ice Cream (Infographic) (friendseat.com)
- The Most Twisted Ice Cream Ad You Will Ever See (adrants.com)