When In France Don't Try To Burn Down Their Restaurants—I Speak From Experience
Thursday, March 1, 2012

My friend Meg sent me an email last night asking if I had any hotel or dining suggestions for her upcoming trip to Paris. 

Here's my biggest travel tip for anyone out there: Do not ask me for travel suggestions unless you enjoy novel length emails filled with every bit of minutia I can come up with. I love passing on travel tips. In fact, I'm some kind of Sheriff of Travel or something, over at Trip Advisor because I write so many reviews.

And by the way, Meg, I forgot to tell you this little tidbit. The French gas stations? They're like gourmet delis. Not a single insect-infested fruit pie to be found. It's all beautiful cheeses, fresh fruits, amazing meats and these big, beautiful bakeries. It'll probably be the only time in my life I will say, "Why don't we eat at the gas station?"

After I wrote Meg a 359,000 word email, I got inspired by all the Frenchy-ness and I decided to run an updated rerun about my dining experiences in France. Don't worry. It will be new to you, Internet, because this post is from the days when I had two followers, one of them being my sister. Enjoy!

I try to be a straight A representative for our homeland when I travel. I'm always up on the customs and the very basics of the language wherever I go. It has always worked in my favor. 

Until I got to France. 

My darling friend, Lady Jennie, an American living in France with her sexy French husband and bustling household of children, reassures me it is the way of French people, that, in general, they don't even like each other. 

But I don't care. I have this puppy-like insatiable need to be loved. By everyone. Dead Kim Jong could walk in the room and I would do my best to coax a laugh and a nod of approval out of him.  

I'd been warned. I knew to expect French cold shoulders. But I also know how universally effective a shy smile and some stuttering stabs at a foreign language can be when trying to find a bathroom. 

Rudimentary French got me nowhere, but one big collective, derisive snort and looks of contempt. I constantly tried to prove myself, yet no one would find me worthy. France was that mean, cliquey girl, the one so smug in her beauty, no one else can measure up. 

And I knew why the French found us so contemptible. I'd gathered up all the reasons and I was determined to prove them wrong. 

I knew how much they despised our fashion sense. Hell, I despise our fashion sense. It hurts my eyes to look around me on most days. When did we become a nation of tennis shoes paired with t-shirts proclaiming, I Don't Get Drunk. I Get Awesome! 

The French couldn't hate me for my outward appearance, because honestly, I dress French. I do. All the time. For instance, high heels are a staple of my life, as essential as my underwear. Seriously. Field trips to Grandma's Huggin' Farm, soccer games, Walmart, where I am eyed suspiciously as an outsider infringing on their People of Walmart cult—I am always in my heels. 

So, fashion was an effortless hurdle. 

The French also have a great distaste for the amplified volume of Americans. 

This was a bit of a problem. 

You see, I married an amplified American. Restaurants were the toughest, as quiet as a church service with the French conversing in their papery, whispered tones. Every time I attempted the quiet-talk, my Hubs would shout from across the table, "WHAT? I CAN'T UNDERSTAND YOU WHEN YOU WHISPER."

And then, of course, there was the time we almost burned down the French restaurant. 

It was our first night in a small village outside of Normandy. We were dining at a Michelin rated restaurant in a restored home that was centuries old. They had guided us into a parlor for an aperitif, a formal must before the celebration the French call dinner. 

I'd only had a sip of my Kir Royale when I noticed the smoke curling up from behind my hub's shoulder. I pointed with my drink and offered up casually, (I was tired), "Something's on fire behind you."

He turned to find his faux leather jacket up in flames. 

He'd tossed it on the table behind him. He neglected to see the lit candle in the middle of the table. 

He picked up that burning hide of pleather and slapped and stomped and slapped some more and whipped that flaming pleather around his head like a fire dancer. This went on until the entire restaurant was filled with smoke and the smell of burnt—I don't know—the best I can come up with is, dehydrated cow manure. 

I placed the charred, still-smoking jacket outside of a window, the whole time muttering, "Désolé, Désolé" as the staff and other diners coughed and gagged their way through the evening, sending smarmy looks our way. 

It didn't help our case. 

I felt like I apologized my way through that beautiful country. And call me a stupid American, call me a global moron, but there is much to be said for the people of our land, always willing to extend a hand to anyone who needs to find a bathroom or the correct route on the subway. 

Here in the States, that jacket would have been pounced upon by some, others would have grabbed the extinguisher and we would have all sat back and had a hearty, boisterous laugh, shouting to each other from our tables—a burning, pleather jacket making us all fast friends. 

We have beauty in our own land. We just count it in other ways. 

I so wanted to be loved by that cliquey, pretty girl. But France did not love me, no matter how hard I tried. 

Here's the true story to cement my case. 

It was Bordeaux, our last night in France and we'd stumbled upon a nook of a restaurant where all the locals ate. 

Now, here's where I tell you, I am the rock star of exotic dining. If there's something crazy on the menu, I'm ordering it. 

I've had fried bone marrow. From an ox. And it was DELICIOUS. In true southern girl fashion, I always suck the heads of the crawfish. And I've eaten head cheese with my chef friend, Dave LeFevre. 

Oh, which by the way, Dave is a semi-finalist this year, for the prestigious James Beard award for best chef AND best new restaurant for his LA restaurant, Manhattan Beach Post. If you're ever in LA, go see Dave, tell him Joann Cleveland-Mannix sent you. You will not be disappointed. Congratulations, Baby D and good luck!

Anyway, I thought I was an untamed eater until I got to France. You see, the French adore their organ meats. And because I am a Web MD groupie and a well-read hypochondriac, I know some of the horrific diseases that can come from eating organ meats. And if I started eating organ meats, I would have to add even more diseases to my laundry list of illnesses that I'm sure are taking up space in my body. Every time I drool, (which is daily if not hourly) I would be certain it was the Mad Cow from the plate of calves' brains on a bed of arugula I'd eaten in France. 

I don't do organ meats. 

It would take me forever with my little culinary dictionary to translate the menu every night. But that little book became the most valuable item of our trip. 

By the last night, I was so tired of taking 30 minutes to distinguish the foie gras from the braised tripe, I was completely relieved when our waiter told us he could translate the menu for us. 

Our waiter was the owner's son and the owner, a lovely chic woman, was intrigued that Americans had come to her off-the-beaten-path restaurant. 

Her son translated the menu, describing a veal that my husband was all over and a sushi plate with a cup of green tea that sounded perfect to me. 

Usually I'm a veal girl myself, (sorry all you calf lovers, but I do find veal lip-smacking delicious), but I wanted something light and I couldn't resist our waiter's scrumptious description of the sushi. 

Remember that word. Light. As in, not heavy.  

We ordered and the culinary debauchery began. 

The French are known for their many sophisticated courses and the way they linger over the table for hours. In our two weeks there, I'd gotten used to the continuous parade of courses. But this? This was eleven courses. ELEVEN courses. And with each one, the lovely little owner would come over and say, "Americans usually do not like real gourmet. I do not serve the hamburger here. If you like my food, you must eat all of it."

And I so wanted her to like me and more importantly, to prove her wrong, to show her a real American has class and can talk quietly, wear heels and has a refined palate. We don't all eat at McDonald's. 

Well, there was that one time. 

But the whole friggin' country shuts down between noon and two and we were hungry and did you know in France, fries are seven bucks? And they're not even good. All limp and unsalted. 

The French woman's food was fantastic, so it wasn't that much of an effort to keep forking it in. She would venture over and comment, smiling approvingly with each empty plate. I was happy to be pleasing her. 

And then . . . the main course arrived. 

My husband's veal looked delicious. 

The waiter set an empty bowl before me. From a platter on his tray, he extracted with silver tongs, a gelatinous, flabby slab of raw fish. Placing it ceremoniously into my bowl, he announced, "I will now pour the green tea over the fish. The steaming liquid will cook it and in the process, create a green tea-fish soup."

Definitely a lost in translation moment. 

I tried so hard. But that soup tasted like a heaping endless bowl of fish perfume. It was awful. 

As I worked at keeping the soup down, gulping water with each spoonful of green tea and still-raw gobs of fish, I whined to my husband (quietly), "I feel like I'm on Fear Factor."

He could only nod as he stuffed every delectable forkful of that veal in his mouth and wiped his plate clean with his delicious crusty bread. 

The owner came over and rubbed my hub's back, exclaiming over his clean plate. 

Looking over at me, she clucked and sternly told me to keep eating. 

Which I did, feeling like any minute the nine courses before this one were about to come up all over her pristine linen tablecloth which would most certainly cause her to dislike me even more. 

And since I am just like a golden retriever puppy and quite tenacious to boot, I finished every slimy, perfumed drop of that soup. 

She gave me the nod of approval as she hand-delivered the pre-dessert course. 

That's right. The dessert before the dessert. 

I was sweating by the time the real dessert got there, a multi-layered huge slab of cream cake AND a chocolate mousse. 

I couldn't do it. It was no longer physically possible. The cake sat there, uneaten. My guilt on a delicate china plate. 

And as I pushed away from the table feeling like the Discovery Channel's 1,000 pound man, the lovely owner came over to me and sneered, "I knew it. You did not like my food. Typical American."

If I wasn't about to vomit in my mouth, I would have tossed the quiet-talking aside and said what any American would say who had tried her damnedest to speak the language even as she was mocked openly, eat the pigeon and the foie gras with a smile on her face and act politely even when she was treated with constant incivility. I would have given her an American pledge, refined over time, but still the same code we have lived by throughout our nation's proud history—"Really? You want to mess with me? Then, BRING IT, French Sister!" 

I do not hate France, quite the contrary. I just hate the mean girl she can be, beautiful to the eye, but ready with the preconceived judgments, passing out her intolerance in heaping French fistfuls. 

But I will end my story with a redemption. 

As we set out for our car several blocks away, the freezing rain poured down upon us, soaking through the cheap, broken umbrella our chateau had lent us. A perfect ending to my miserable night. 

I whimpered, "I think I'm going to throw up," as I held my stomach, angry and frustrated over my stupid attempt to be loved.  

As we huddled under our umbrella, scurrying through the rain, a shout stopped us in our tracks. Our waiter caught up with us, soaked from the pelting rain. He handed us an enormous, obviously expensive umbrella and said, "From my mother. She said you should take care in this rain."

He took our cheap umbrella and tossed it in the trash before jogging back in the cold, wet rain. 

I do love France. It seems mean girls can be quite capable of kindness. You just have to look in the right places. 

Today's Definite Download: This song is the newest love of my life. "Some Nights" from the band, Fun. I've been listening to Fun for awhile, since before Glee made them popular. "Some Nights" is from their brand new album. Do yourself a favor and take a listen to this song, here, right here. I guarantee it will have you flailing about your living room. In a good way.  

"Some Nights" has gotten me through this week, much more than a gorging of Elfwich cookies ever could. I'm not going to go into any details yet, but let's just say Tom Petty got it right, when he said the waiting is the hardest part. Putting your writer's fate in the hands of others is excruciating. I vacillate from huge writerly angst and despair to hopeful joy. And that would be every second of the day. Oh yes, I'm super fun to be around these days. 

I've just started down this road and I really don't know how writers, since time began, have spent their lives and every bit of their heart pursuing this dream. It's that soul sucking hard. 

But actually, I do know. Writing enslaves me. There is nothing better than capturing words and thoughts and making a story from your writer's heart.  And so I despair and dream and flail about and write. And nothing could be finer. 

Now go on with your bad self. Go flail. 


Heather said...

Loved every of minute of this. And now I totally want to go to France and make some French mean girl like me.

JoAnna said...

It's funny, until February 11, I would have agreed that France is just as you describe because that's how it was in 2003. But, after 2 weeks there last month, I learned that they no longer shut down everything from 12-2. They don't seem to serve those inordinately lengthy meals. And sadly, EVERYONE seems to be wearing jeans and sneakers! I couldn't believe it! Some women were still neatly dressed in heels as we expect, but almost everyone, in Paris and the city where the kids stayed with host families, wore jeans of varying levels of gross and beat up shoes. I was shocked! Even the teachers at the school were very dressed down. Not what I expected!

I remember small portions of everything in restaurants and them taking FOR EVER to give us a bill. Not this time! Everywhere I went, heaping plates just like here. And waiters who were visible and ready to give us our check. Not hurrying us out, but not standing in the corner waiting for our signal like in the old days.

Since I speak French, I think I get less of that cold shoulder everyone talks about. I've never felt like they were rude to me or ignoring me because I am American. I did get mad at one place where they were all snippy, but they were snippy to everyone, so I don't know that it was because I'm American.

The one thing that HASN'T changed? That everything is so small. The streets, the apartments, the cars, the hotel rooms, EVERYTHING. I like BIG America, I have decided. I like space. I like room.

Anonymous said...

I have always wanted to go to France, but I don't know a word of French other than yes, and I am sure that could get me in a bit of trouble. They do have such a beautiful language.. That and Latin! Love it.

& I also get very upset if someone doesn't like me.. So I don't know how well I would fare.

Lori said...

Funny! I still want to go to France. But thanks for the tip on the sushi soup thing. Hope your writer's troubles get better!

Not a Perfect Mom said...

I will have to go to France and make her my bitch now...
and tripe is yummy!

W.C.Camp said...

I only got snubbed a couple of times in big cities but no problem in the country. I have never had an 11 course dinner anywhere though - WOW, great story! W.C.C.

The Zadge said...

I studied French for 7 years in school and thought I was prepared when I visited. Unfortunately, they never taught us how to say "You are a rude muther focker" in school. J'abhor le Francais.

Christine Macdonald said...

You had me at Head Cheese.

Cari said...

You are quite gracious. I would not have eaten the "sushi" and asked for two desserts. It's all about the food for me. I must go to Italy first, I'll gain 20 pounds, lose the weight and go to France and eat at the gas station.

karen said...

A country that loves organ meats? This I could not do. I would also have a hard time with not being liked - it could be a deal breaker, and ruin the whole trip for me if I ever decided to go there, which doesn't look likely anytime soon. Meh - I'd rather go somewhere friendly, anyway. With a good beach where people keep their suits on. So not TOO friendly, I guess.
Your download was was awesome. If my husband hadn't been in the next room I would have blasted the volume and would, indeed, have been flailing around the room. Maybe even the whole upstairs. But he would have sighed loudly and shaken his head and rolled his eyes and so I didn't. But tomorrow...

Unknown said...

As usual, you are a riot!

Shell said...

That fish soup sounds repulsive.

Other than that, I think I'd like to try a meal like that.

In my stretchy pants.

Gigi said...

I would love to visit France - but I probably would have cried when they put that soup in front of me.

Rita Templeton said...

I am the same way! I lived in Germany for three years, and was always falling all over myself to prove I wasn't like "those" Americans, the ones Europeans love to hate. But every time we went to France, I felt like my efforts went wasted. In fact, our car once broke down just outside of Paris, and the people we encountered seriously WENT OUT OF THEIR WAY to make things more difficult for us - like the gas station attendant telling my husband he couldn't use their phone (this was prior to our cell phone days) but instead had to CROSS THE AUTOBAHN ON FOOT to use one of the "emergency" roadside phones. Psssh! It was a mess. Still, I loved France, and I'd like to go back there someday. Maybe I'll get fluent in French first and wow them with my knowledge of their native language.

... Or, you know, maybe not.

Anyway, bravo on choking down the nasty fish soup. OMG. I could NOT have done it, seeing as I don't like fish, not even one itty-bitty iota, no matter how "deliciously" it's prepared. Kudos to you and your American tenacity! :)

Meg at the Members Lounge said...

Joann, I'm howling at the leather jacket story - that is priceless!

The only reason I'm agreeing to the France trip is my husband is fluent in French; I was more on board for a villa in Italy, but I'll take what I can get! And hey everyone, Joann really does give the best travel advice - her extensive list of Napa/Sonoma places was better than any travel guide!

twelvedaysold said...

I do so love your stories. Thanks for sharing!

Got any tips for going to Denver? We'll be there in July :)

Kimberly said...

Contrary to popular belief not all Canadians speak French. I am one of those people. Sure I know enough to get me a beer and tell someone off when they cut me off in traffic but other than that...zilch.
And our Canadian French is totally different than Paris French. Weird eh?
I can't believe you ate marrow. Everything about that makes me queasy.
In unrelated news, have you ever seen that show Bizzare Foods? You should. He eats crap like that.

Julie said...

When I finally joined Twitter - around the same time you did, I think - my first tweet was something along the lines of "the waiting is the second hardest part. no offense to Tom Petty."

(Although I'm sure the actual tweet was much, much funnier because I had big plans to kick Twitter's ass. You see, I want everyone to like me, too. Even people I do not like. ESPECIALLY people I do not like. Shhhh.)

Anyway, all these months later I cannot for the life of me remember what I thought was the FIRST hardest thing.

But it doesn't matter because I was wrong. wrong. wrong.

Waiting is harder than finishing a bowl of fish perfume.

(And even more nauseating.)

So here's to surviving the wait. And to celebrating the good answers at the end.

Because you will be loved, my friend. By everyone.

This I know.

My Inner Chick said...

I hear the French are real biatches!

Of course, I'm envious as hell.

Love this:

""Writing enslaves me.""

Yes. Yes! How True.

Love coming your way & Xx Kissss

Rebecca Grace said...

I'm so glad you posted this again! I can't believe the French people didn't love you immediately. I think you should give it a do-over, and try Paris in the off-season. When I went in January, when the city wasn't overrun by tourists, I found the local people to be much more tolerant and helpful. And your sushi story reminded me of my one bad food experience in Paris, when I ate at the famous Le Procope in the Latin Quarter and ordered the tete de veau (calf's head stew, and yes, I KNEW it was baby cow brains and I ordered it anyway because it was one of the original menu items from the 17th century and Voltaire and Rousseau and Napoleon and Ben Franklin probably all ate it and if I ate it too, I also would be assured of my place in history). But the escargots and the fois gras and the crepes and everything else I ate was always divine.

Debbie said...

oh my - France would chew me up and spit me out in 2 flat seconds. And then I would cry. It's amazing ow different countries have different cultures AND attitudes.

Carole said...

Enjoying your blog. There are so many corners of France that are lovely. I posted on one in Normandy here http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2011/11/bagnoles-de-lorne.html

Carole said...

Enjoying your blog. There are so many corners of France that are lovely. I posted on one in Normandy here http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2011/11/bagnoles-de-lorne.html

Unknown said...

Love it. I'm late getting here, but you are right on the money with this one. The funny thing is, that owner was probably not even turned off - she was probably just stating a fact when she said that you were a typical American. Proven by the fact she had her son run after you with an umbrella.

But what a shame you forced down the gelatinous lump of fish only to turn down chocolate mousse. :-(

Sweaty said...

HAHAHAHAHA oh boy, you really killed it as far as making an impression with the French, didn't you? lol. You know what, I'll be going to Paris in two weeks time for a one-week holiday with my little girl. We've been there several times before, and yes, at the risk of sounding cliche, Paris IS my favorite place on earth (see how cliche I sounded?). I've found them to be much friendlier than before in recent years (don't ask me how) but yes, I must agree with you regarding the difference in reactions towards a flaming jacket in the middle of dinner between the French and the Americans. Your story got me laughing so hard. hahahaha.

Btw, I've left you two awards and a meme at my post today http://sweatywrites.com/e-is-for/#comment-387441518. Feel free to claim it (or ignore it like everybody else--lol). At least you know that I think you're awesome ;)

Judie said...

I draw the line at any organ meat other than liver and onions, and I definitely do not eat raw fish! I think I would have forced that dessert down, though, then pretend that I was in the New Orleans French Quarter, gone outside, and vomitted in the street. They do that down there, you know!!

Is that "Awesome" quote really on a shirt, or am I free to steal it and make my own shirt? Just askin'!!

Dawn in D.C. said...

I just saw Meg's post about going to France and remembered that you had gone there as well. It's on our list (which is getting quite long!) and I will definitely remember not to order anything with the word fish in it!

Your stories are the best!

Tracie Nall said...

You are clearly a much better person than I am, because I don't think I could have gotten down a mouthful of that soup.

But, I would have just handed it to my husband and demanded in a hushed whisper to switch and eat quickly before anyone noticed.

Anita @ GoingALittleCoastal said...

Thanks for the story. I felt like I was right there in France. I would still like to go there and see all that beauty.

Italy also has the gourmet gas stations. It was so good!

Your fish story reminds me of when we all went to dinner with family in Italy. We were 20 Americans traveling over there. We went to a family style restaurant where my cousins went to every thursday. Where you dont order but they just keep bringing food. It was never ending. Until the time the placed the cuddle fish in front of me. Ugh! It was like rubber. I couldn't eat it. Thank goodness there was more food to be served.

nathalie said...

bonjour à tous ! i'm french ,yes ! and i'm very surprised to hear we don't like americans ... i love USA AND Americans and i grew up thinking your country was an example for everything ! i know now it'not true and we have also our qualities and advantages !! i traveled across US (even in hawai ) and i loved that ,so much that i intend to come back next year with my children .I do think Americans are more friendly ,more smiling ,more welcoming than French .I, first think that parisians are rude and often not very polite !!but i don't live in Paris ! we are cooler in provinces !!!

Anonymous said...

afternoon everyone im looking for matt singlton is he still on here
alfred beilin

Baby Sister said...

Well you had quite the adventure!! This makes me want to go to France even more than I already do!! You are probably one a few people that could make France like you. Well done. :)

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