Thursday, April 18, 2013

"Pensees De Paree - Le Pricklinesse (Or Is It La Pricklinesse?)"

Or is it a made-up French word? 

(Still, even in jest, one is concerned with getting the gender wrong, for fear of offending the male or the female contingency unnecessarily.  Quel quandary!   (Or is it “Quelle quandary”?) 

Okay, first a delicious moment.  A delectable gumdrop, to mitigate the tartness of some touristical carping:

Overheard at the Gallerie D’Orsay while standing in front of a painting depicting a naked woman in the company of two clothed men:

“It is not acceptable for someone to be naked in a painting when everyone else is wearing clothes.  That’s why this painting is so controversial.”

I turned my head to discover that the speaker of this knowledgability was no educated art historian, but rather a wise and quite serious-looking eight year-old girl. 

I felt a propelling impulse to reward the diminutive art maven with a hug.  But I did not want to incur potential problems with the Parisian SVU.

Okay.  Moving to the critical…

The French – he opined, wielding a broad stereotypifying brush – have a reputation for being brusque and dismissive in their relationships with strangers.  Ask the Germans, who they’ve been battling on and off for centuries, the principalities of Alsace and Lorraine, as a consequence, passing back and forth with whiplashing frequency.  (Alsace-Lorrainian Citizen:  “I own lederhosen and a beret.  I am ready for anything.”) 

The French are notoriously not even nice to each other.  Beyond the “Big One” in 1789, my indispensible book about Paris – I am now up to 1742 – tells of a disturbing number of revolutions and lesser internecine disturbances throughout French history.  On our visit alone, we witnessed three street protests over various issues, the most perplexing one being a vociferous rally of schoolteachers, demanding that they not be required to teach classes on Wednesdays.)  

An English friend of Anna’s named Isaac, who had “Chunneled” over for the day to hang out with her, skeweringly delineated the encompassing “Attitude Francais” (or is it “Francaise”) thusly:

“I am thinking of getting a French massage.”

“What’s a French massage?”

“One where they only half care about doing it.”

A listener added the visual effect of an indifferent practitioner massaging their client while simultaneously flicking ashes from a cigarette.

For the most part, our treatment throughout our visit was congenial and helpful.  But it felt almost like the Parisian Chamber of Commerce had directed them to do so: 

“The ‘Tourists Suggestion Box’ cards say we need to act nicer.”

So they do.  But the detectable sense is that, beneath the accommodating surface, there are Parisian impulses that are considerably less congenial.


Once, as we were struggling for the appropriate tip coinage, our clearly impatient driver – who had already factored that into the fare – turned back to us, his eyes reflecting unalloyed annoyance at the delay, and said, with an unmistakable drippage of condescension:


As if, after a sanctioned excursion, he were returning his addle-minded passenger to the protective confines of a “Home for the Criminally Insane.”

Then, there was the visit to the Petit Palace, whose mandate, the guidebooks informed us, was to house the lesser works of renowned artists (I imagined the curator evaluating some work of art and deciding, “Oh, no.  This painting is way too good for this museum.”) 

Dr. M had an interest in the paintings of Delacroix.  Unable to locate them on her own, she approached a museum employee to direct her to the appropriate gallery.  When she mentioned the artist’s name, however, the man seemed not to understand her, as if she had marbles in her mouth, or was someone whose defective brain had reduced them to speaking gibberish.   Though not without massive effort, the man finally deciphered her intention.

“Delacwah!” he intoned, sounding to my ear like he was parroting exactly what Dr. M had said to him.  Somehow, however, her Americanized pronunciation had offended his artistic sensibilities, thus obligating him, before offering the appropriate directions, to embarrass her for lacking a sufficient amount of “r”-rolling gutterality in her “cwah.”

And finally, the traditional restaurant cliché - the waiter who deliberately ignores the customers.

I realize that Paris is famous for its “leisurely dining.”  For a number of weeks, in fact, in preparation for our visit, Dr. M and I abandoned our traditional ravenous eating habits, making a conscious point of eating more slowly.  (Fifteen minutes, instead of our overall average of five.)  However – and I admit this may be my “cultural prejudice” showing – I do not consider it part of “leisurely dining” for the waiter to take an hour to bring you the menu. 

How is that possibly part of the concept?  We have no food to “leisurely dine” over.  Yet, every time I tried to get his attention, the waiter deliberately, it seemed to me, would vamoose in the opposite direction. 

Despite my most disciplined efforts, this type of premeditated customer abuse inevitably triggers explosions of frustration-driven sarcasm.  (Uttered more to my fellow sufferers than directly to the waiter, but if he accidentally overheard, that would be just fine.)  I recall myself muttering sardonic comments, such as:

“I know it’s a restaurant.  I see other people eating.” 

“Should we just guess what’s on the menu?”

“I don’t mean to rush you, but we’re leaving in four days.”

None of it helped.  The waiter came to our aid only after the restaurant was virtually empty, and only because, at that point, the transparent explanation for his inattention was that he unquestionably hated us.

The food, when we finally got it, was delicious.  The desultory service?  Who knows? It may simply have been the obligatory completion of our Parisian itinerary: 

“Zeese people have been here a week and nobody has behaved badly.  We ‘ave our reputation to uphold.  Treat zem like sheet, or zey will zink zey were never in Paris.”

Mostly, as I said, the “Customer Service” was impeccable.  But there was clearly a soupcon of effort involved.  On our departure, there would be no “Y’all come back real soon, y’hear?”  It would be nice to believe they felt a similar congeniality, but were simply culturally incapable of articulating it.  But the betting money would be elsewhere. 

“Zank goodness zey’re gone.” 

What I know for a certainty is that that waiter congenitally hated our guts. 

And for what reason?   All we did was talk loud in English, and leave an outlandishly oversized tip.   

1 comment:

Mac said...

I've had the "pleasure" of dining in Paris when Nouvelle Cuisine was all the rage. It was, if you remember, a way of selling starter-sized portions of food and charging loads of money for them. As the waiter spent most of the evening ignoring us, and our main course took about fifteen seconds to eat, there was nothing else to do but neck the (admittedly magnificent) wine.
When the waiter eventually came back (about six days later) and asked if we'd like anything else, we rolled around clutching our stomachs and said we were much too full. Childish I know, but after a week of Parisian restaurant service...
I've had the same treatment in Montreal so they must have carried the tradition over from the old country.