14 June 2009

Lunch before dinner

Karen surprised me last evening by announcing that, even though she was pretty shelled after traveling and being sleep-deprived all week, she was feeling sprightly enough to want to eat dinner out. This was both good and bad news. The good news is obvious, but eating out at a real restaurant in Paris on Saturday night without a reservation is a bit of a challenge.

Unlike the States, where empty tables are usually up for grabs, many Paris restaurants do just 1 seating per night, and if the tables are reserved for 8:45, they will not be made available to you at 7:00, even if the place is totally empty and an 8:45 reservation won't show until 9:00. This puts a lot of Americans out. "They were so rude to me-- the place was empty, and they still wouldn't seat us. They hate Americans over there!" Now, there's no shortage of making fun of Americans over here, and for sure there's some animosity in some sectors, but not getting an empty table in a restaurant without reservations isn't a symptom of that.

Thankfully, also unlike the States, reservations generally don't require a week's or month's planning. Reserving on weeknights can be as simple as calling that day during the lunch service, or even as soon as they open in the evening. But if it's a cheek-by-jowl charming little bistro you're hoping to eat at on Saturday night, you'll want to call a day or two in advance.

So we decided to take our chances at a little place in the 6e that serves brasserie food on Sat nights with a no-reservation policy. Being Americans who still usually eat dinner earlier than 9:00, we figured we had a decent chance of getting a table straight away at 8:00. No dice-- there was already a line when we arrived, but it was short enough that we figured it was worth trying out.

Lines in Paris cause me a little angst, because it's hard to tell when they mean something and when they don't. To a Parisian, the line is great way to keep order for everybody else, but it is (obviously) not meant for someone as important as them. Doesn't matter whether it's a grocery store or an airline ticket counter. Heck, a Parisian with a hangnail wouldn't think twice of trying to jump a line of trauma patients needing time-critical care in an ER. So unless you're willing to bust some balls and defend your turf, lining up for a table at a restaurant means you'll probably be hungry a very long time while others show up and take empty tables without waiting. Surprisingly, the wait staff at this restaurant were unwavering in maintaining the integrity of the line, and it was a mostly hostilities-free experience.

The last person in line when we arrived at 8 was a young woman who by first appearances could have been Parisian: she was thin, wearing a nice dress and high heels, had no guide books in her hands, and she was smoking. Always encouraging to see locals at your restaurant. But it didn't take long to see that she probably wasn't, in fact, from Paris. First, she wasn't wearing black. Second, though smoking, she was clearly uncomfortable with it. She kept moving the cigarette around to keep the smoke from drifting too heavily at us or the people in front of her. People are no longer allowed to smoke indoors in public places in France, including restaurants, so smoking outside is done with a vigor and authority you don't usually see in the States.

The final proof came, though, when she turned to me, nodded to her cigarette, looked me straight in the eyes and said earnestly, "Je suis déjeuner." As already implied, no Parisian would ever apologize for smoking outside. And even more revealing to the careful observer, no Parisian would apologize for smoking outside by saying "I am lunch."

Presumably, she meant "Je suis désolé," which would indicate some regret, though I'm not sure how much, exactly, since in the metro I usually hear it used in instances where it's obvious the offending person performed the offending act entirely willfully.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe she was indeed Parisian and she wasn't referring to her cigarette, at all. Maybe she was just coming on to me. Paris is the city of romance, after all, and marital fidelity here is casual enough that Karen's presence by my side might not much deter a zealous paramour-to-be. And "I am lunch" is kind of a sexy and intriguing line, actually.

Either way, it took all of my focus to keep my composure and not burst out laughing. Detecting a British accent in her delivery, I thought it would be mean to respond, "Chéri, tu n'es même pas petite déjeuner*."

*Darling, you're not even breakfast.

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