Living Both Sides of the French Coin


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At one time or another, almost everyone has been caught in some kind of bureaucratic nonsense, when you simply can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences come and go, wherever you live in the world. When this happens, it’s good to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again.

I had just returned to Paris from two months in the U.S. First order of business was to exchange my old French SIM card for one to fit a new smart phone purchased over the holidays. It’s a pleasant ten-minute walk to our neighborhood telecom store where we have been customers for six years.

Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air was minor compared to the long queue of people waiting for service. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in by staring at mute TV monitors rolling repetitious ads. A sign on the wall reminded everyone to behave courteously, at all times. Potential customers entered, assessed the non-moving line, and spun back out. A few lined up behind me. Ninety minutes later, it was finally my turn.

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I explained that I simply needed a replacement SIM card to fit my new cell phone. Account numbers were given. Alors, mais non! The account was not in my name. No transaction was possible without the account holder’s identity card. The “account holder”, my husband, was at work outside the city with his passport and carte sejour [residence card] in a briefcase.

I pleaded [courteously], in poorly phrased French, about how long and patiently I had waited, what an easy transaction it was. Surely the man could see our long-standing account on the computer. He agreed that it would only take 30 seconds to give me a new card. However, I must have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. And no further negotiation.

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Outside in cooler air, fuming over the silliness of French “rules”, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED”, until 3:00PM. Now annoyed and hungry, I decided to wait it out in an upscale brasserie around the corner. Although well known by everyone living in the area, I had never been inside. Unknowingly, upon entering the door, my reset button began to tick.

A man in a red tie and black suit greeted and then ushered me to a small table facing the door. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and round-bowled bistro stemware. The menu was large and colorful with “CUISINE FAMILIALE ET BOURGEOISE” in bold letters.

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The menu covered a range of fresh seafood platters–oysters, lobster, shrimp, and crab–served on ice with lemon halves, brown bread and butter, or starters of salads and terrines, main courses of viandes or poissons [meat or fish], desserts of profiteroles au chocolat chaud, crème caramel, glaces and sorbets. Très French indeed.

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I chose two starters as a meal. OEufs durs mayonnaise is one of my favorites. Hard-boiled eggs with fresh, homemade mayo, garnished with greens. Followed by a salad of frisée, croutons, and bacon. A silver basket of sliced artisanal baguette was placed on the table almost immediately, along with a tall pepper grinder, a carafe of water and a glass of wine.

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It’s wonderfully easy in France to dine alone, any time of day or night. It’s also very comfortable. As a single diner you are rather ghost-like, invisible to others dining and talking with companions. I sipped red wine, relaxed into the back of the cushioned leather chair, and contentedly looked around. A layer of frustration began to melt away.

At the entrance, there was a long brass bar framed in wood. While the bartender busily prepared coffee or drinks, his eyes took in everything else going on in the room. Interior lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades The floor was terrazzo, in beiges, browns and blacks, with flower accents in tiny mosaic tiles. There was a tall black urn with long stemmed red roses on a windowsill next to the bar. Thick curtains on brass rods and rings trimmed the lower third of windows along the sidewalk. Natural light streamed in above, allowing views of passers-by. Walls of burnished wood were decorated with framed, cartoonish café scenes.

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underfoot ambience

Servers wore traditional long black aprons over white shirts and black ties. They moved in fluid choreography; carrying food from the kitchen, unobtrusively refilling carafes of water, breadbaskets, or wine glasses at tables with standing silver buckets and cloth draped bottles.

A woman swirled in wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man next to me was obviously a regular. His meal appeared without ordering, including an espresso at the end. He donned a fedora, slipped a newspaper under his arm, and departed with a handshake to the man at the door.

My food was served in two leisurely courses. I never felt hurried. Another layer of annoyance fell away.

By 2:45PM, the atmosphere changed. Diners drifted away and the bartender’s pace visibly slowed as he cleaned, polished and put away wine glasses. Servers casually cleared and reset tables, chatting back and forth to each other. A table of four lingered over a bottle of unfinished wine and what appeared to be an intense discussion.

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typical finale

I had long since finished eating, but remained sitting there rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the tallied score had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, I had readjusted my attitude by simply doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch in a traditional café, blending in with culture and ambience that I both appreciate and love. La belle vie en France–c’est comme ça.

Final score: French bureaucracy-1, Wendy’s love for Paris-1. Not a tie––I won.

OEUFS MAYONNAISE [courtesy of Paris Paysanne]

  • 2 fresh egg yolks, room temperature
  • 2 pinches salt
  • 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups olive oil
  • dash of H2O
  • drop of red wine vinegar
  • 1-2 hard-boiled eggs per person
  • Mâche [lamb’s lettuce] or greens for salad/garnish, cayenne pepper, optional

Preparation:

Whisk egg yolks together with salt and mustard until creamy and light in color. SLOWLY begin to add olive oil–a few drops at a time to start, whisking vigorously all the time as you go. It should become thicker as the oil is mixed in, but not liquidy. Add all the oil until it is finished. If it seems too stiff, add a dash of H2O and continue whisking. Finish with a drop of red wine vinegar and salt to taste.

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Cut hard-boiled eggs in half. Top with fresh mayo. Garnish with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and greens as desired.

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne