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 nightmare. Where you can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences occur wherever you live in the world. When they happen, it’s important to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again. For me the reset button began with a serendipitous stop in a Parisian café.

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

Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air seemed minor compared to the long queue of people ahead of me. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in for the wait 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.

I explained that I 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 his 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 it would take 30 seconds to give me a new SIM card. However, I did not have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. No further negotiation.

Outside in much cooler air, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken, all the while fuming over French “rules”. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED” until 3:00PM. Now, both 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 for two. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and bistro glassware. 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 and 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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In France it’s easy and comfortable to dine alone, any time of day or night. 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 melted away.

At the entrance 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. The inside lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades.

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 the door wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man at the table 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 wine and an intense discussion.

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I had finished eating, but remained sitting and rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the score tally had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, my mood was lighter, my attitude readjusted. All because of doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch, blending in with culture and ambience that I both admire and appreciate.

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