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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Day 1, 5:30 pm

I take the metro back to the Commerce stop and walk back to the hostel. I don’t immediately go to my room, though. I stop in the bar area and talk to Julie, the bartender/concierge (there’s something funny about that--I don’t know if it was funny that they combined the positions into one person, or the idea that you could call what they do concierge in any way).
I write a few notes about the day in my notebook, then have a beer.

Est-ce que vous recommanderiez un bon résto pour ce soir?”

She hesitates and narrows her eyes. “Français ou anglais?”


Pour parler, français ou anglais?”

Oh, uh... français.”


I can feel that she wants to roll her eyes. She tells me about a great restaurant serving “Southwest”-style cuisine, not knowing what a loaded term that is for someone from Texas. It’s called Chez Papa. I go outside, then pass the church façade, then go down Rue Mademoiselle. I pass a crèperie and make a mental note of it. Two more restaurants, a chocolate shop, and several boutiques. There it is, Chez Papa, on the corner of the street. I go in and asked for a non-smoking table.

The waiter offers me French or English menus, and I take the French. As soon as I get to my table I know it was a mistake.

The problem is that I know the French words for duck (canard), veal (veau), lamb (l’agneau), beef (le boeuf or la viande), fish (poisson), snails (escargots), oysters (huitres), foie gras (foie gras), and a bunch of other meats. What I don’t know are the modifying words terrine, magrets, escalope, or aiguillettes. Tail between my legs, I ask for the English menu. I note that piment d’espellette is listed on nearly every menu item. Cool! If I hadn’t been awake for 30 consecutive hours I might notice that this is a Basque restaurant, and that I could use my half-dozen Basque phrases, or that I could have a gateau basque or salt cod al pil-pil. I could even ask the guys here what they think about the plot of my first novel. I didn't even think about it.

But that disgust doesn’t come until the next day.

I finally settled on a plat only, with no entrée and no dessert. I still spend too much money. I ordered escalopes de canard auvergnate, which is potatoes au gratin (using gruyère instead of whatever the hell cheese we use here), covered with scalloped duck breasts and another layer of gruyère. It’s served in a largish orange cast-iron dutch oven with the lid off. The waiter tries to tell me in English that the pot is extremely hot, but my French is better than his English, so he ends up telling me in French. He recommends a wine called Gaillac, a light red, something I love but can’t describe.

I eat slowly, stopping occasionally to write, to drink wine, or to listen in to the conversation between the waiters and cooks. Soon two very lovely young ladies come in and sit with the waiters. One is short and olive-skinned and speaks French with an accent I can’t place. She resembles my ideal for the female lead in Red Beret. The other is tall and slender and seems to be from Paris. The short girl works there already, the tall one is interviewing for a serving position, recommended by the short girl. The waiters show the tall girl around while the short girl gripes about her love life. Occasionally they look over at me and ask, “ça va?” and I say “oui.”

Roasted duck breast atop perfectly browned gruyère potatoes au gratin is about the best meal you could start with in Paris. It’ll be guaranteed to put me to sleep, and it’ll taste good the whole time.

As I eat I notice that every few minutes I come very close to falling asleep in my food. My eyes flutter and my head fades, as though I’m starting to dream already. It’s been happening for quite a while.

I order coffee--the short girl is surprised I want coffee with no dessert--and take l’addition. Walking back toward the hostel I decide I would like dessert after all.

I stop at a place about a block away from the hostel, at the corner of r des Entrepreneurs, called à la tour eiffel and ordered a crème caramel and a café au lait.

The owner of this place is a squat man, with a Gaullic large nose and small eyes. He moves very little the whole time I’m sitting at the bar, but he’s clearly in charge of every aspect of the cafe. He gives quick one- or two-word orders every time someone walks in or someone finishes their drink, and he may have to point occasionally. Otherwise, he yacks in stilted conversation with what seem to be regular customers.

He asks me where I’m from.

“Would it be rude of me to see if you can guess?” I say in French.

“No, it’s not rude, but no, I can’t guess.”

"I’m from Texas.”

I’m disappointed that he shows no surprise, but then again he’s French.

We talk for a while and he complements in a way I’ll hear a lot over the week, “vous écoutez bien français!” Look closely: he just said I listen well, and offers no opinion on the spoken part... I just hope it’s kind of a fixed expression or something. I think listening is what I do the least well... in any language!

I pay the bill and walk back to the hostel. I still have my notebook, so I decide I’m going to write for a little while. I sit at the bar and write a little, then an older Aussie approaches me. His name is Malcolm, and he lives in Paris with his French wife and 10-month old baby. We exchange baby pictures and eventually find out that we're both writers. We exchange email address and I send him a copy of my novel from the internet terminal in the bar. He buys me a beer and offers me a joint. I politely decline, but he keeps pressing, telling me it’ll help me sleep and that I won’t get in trouble. Finally I tell him I’m not here to do that stuff and I don’t want it, at which point he says he’s "not trying to twist my arm or anything”. I feel Indian-burned.

Finally I ask for the key to room 22. I get my bags and went out the door. The courtyard is small, with enough room for three tables and a few chairs. The outhouse bathrooms are on the left, the stairway up is straight ahead. The landing turns you back to where you face the bar. The old wooden stairs are warped and worn brown with footfalls and water damage. From the stairs I turn left to get to room 22. It’s a metal blue door, and it’s wide open.

Three of the four beds have bags on them, leaving me with only a top bunk. I undress carefully and consolidate my stuff on the floor at the foot of the bed. I take Bovary and climb to the top bunk, my back and shoulders feeling the strain of packing too heavily. I roll up my clothes and put them next to my pillow, then open up Bovary. I can't even recognize what I'm looking at as words; they just look like squiggles and dots thrown on a pulpy canvas. I put it down, put the pillow over my head, and fall asleep within 60 seconds.

Sometime during the night my roommates come in. Before I know what I'm doing I tell them the key is on the sink if they need it and that I can move my stuff if they want me to. I say all this in English, then in French, and they don't understand a word of either. I find out the next day that they're Italian.

Later, probably after the bar closed, I heard a loud frat-party sounding ruckus from the courtyard, but it didn’t keep me awake for long. One guy was moaning like a hormonal cat for what seemed like hours in my half-sleep, half-wake delirium.



Anonymous ian said...

hey, just wanted to let you know i've been enjoying your paris posts- i'm going to be heading over there over xmas and i love doing research before these big adventures- anyway, just wanted to let you know you have a satisfied reader! haha. i'll throw up a link to your blog on my site.

best wishes,

Tue Sep 26, 01:31:00 AM  
Anonymous euroarabe said...

hey love your posts! drooling while reading..
im not in paris but i wish i was...

Tue Sep 26, 08:36:00 AM  

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