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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Day 5, Hemingway in Earnest

I walk along r. de l’Arbalete until I’m about to reach r. Mouffetard. Michael Palin wrote the tour I’m following (pretty cool!), and he says this street has an outdoor market every morning. He’s right. There’s a produce stand with apples, pears, mangoes, and all sorts of vegetables. The prices are extraordinary (about 4E for a kilo of apples), but the quality is higher than any place I know of in America except Central Market or Whole Foods. The mangoes look like what my Indian friend Bharathi described: about eight inches from top to bottom, and nearly as big around as my head. That’s my physical head, you understand, not my ego. I look everything over and fantasize about having a normal vacation budget. Then I turn right. The street is patterned cobblestones, arranged in semi-circles that point up the hill like a guide. The street is narrow but there are no cars or trucks parked here, and people are walking on every square foot. It’s a pedestrian mall, of sorts. Up the hill a few hundred feet I see a barricade and cars turning onto the street after it. Between that barricade and me are dozens of shops, the usual suspects. Just up and to my right is a little coffee shop called “Café Marc”. I go in because I’m silly.

I order a Café Crème, just like “the Man”, and it comes with a small piece of chocolate. I stand at the bar and open my notebook and see if I can't write something that kinda sounds like Hem.
The coffee is good and smooth and I pay for it in cash.
It is good to stand and write and watch people go by as I drink, and I decide to buy some Normandy honey from off the shelf. I write about the day before and the meals Nima and I shared, and I think about how I could not have written about it last night. Today I am set apart from that, as though I can view it from a different set of eyes and yet still capture just one moment of it as though I were there. I was there. But I could only write about it today. Perhaps tomorrow I will be able to write about today. Perhaps tomorrow I will die or have some good wine and coffee and talk to my wife on the phone.
Everywhere I go in this country the chocolate is smooth and perfect. I haven’t dared to ask for Milk Chocolate because I fear being barked at. People are coming in and out; they give me a glance or two then set off, and I wish I could stay here forever. But even as I think that I realize I’m ready to leave. It’s getting to be 11a.m. and I’ve barely begun this walk. I have to be back at the hostel at 6:30 to try to get to the bike tour, so I need to move. I open the tour book again and discover that I’ve missed something: at the bottom of the hill is a very unusual painted façade. Indeed it is.

Going back up Mouffetard, I see so many places I’d go if I had more time. I’d go to all of them if I lived here. The wine shop shelves spill out into the street, offering straw-lined crates of bottles from places and years that will never see Texas. The butcher shops have every kind of meat I can only find at specialty shops in Texas. The fromageries have cheeses it’s illegal to buy in Texas. It’s difficult to think about Texas in this place. How can people live here? How can this be a real place, except one that you read about in travelogues?

But I keep walking up the hill. The restaurants turn from distinctly French to distinctly Greek, and I hit the barricade. An open square with a fountain lays before me, but behind me are the umbrellas and people and worlds I’ll never know. I read some more: this is Place Contrescarpe. I remember the name from A Moveable Feast, which I read on the plane. His apartment was near here.

The smell of roasting lamb and braised beef recedes as I veer off to the right onto r. de Cardinal-Lemoine. I’m looking for number 74, and it’s there on my left. The Man lived on the third floor with his first wife and their kid and their cat. I stand there for a few seconds, trying to visualize, trying to see some movement inside. If someone lives there now, I’m sure they know about the history, but is there electricity in the air? Do you think in concise sentences and sparse adjectives when you stand in that space? Do you have an urge to cheat on your wife and abandon her and your kid and marry someone much richer? Or is that just something that comes from being in France (nyuk nyuk)?

I think people might be staring at me while I stare at the third floor, so I move on. A quick left at the corner, then a right on r. Descartes, and I see a restaurant with a formule I like: 15E for Entrée, Plat, Dessert.

One old man sits at a table near mine. He’s eating very small bites of lamb and rice in a red sauce of some sort. I don’t get a menu, so I look around for the chalkboard. I didn’t write down my choices, but I know what I wanted.

  • Entrée - Paté de Poulet (chicken paté) with a small salad
  • Plat - Whatever the guy to my right is having
  • Dessert - Apricot Tarte

I asked the host to borrow a pen, and I start to write. I notice that the host and two waiters are standing at their stations, hardly moving at all, staring out the front windows. I think back to all the above-average restaurants I’ve visited here, and realize that I’ve seen this a lot. People who work in restaurants provide a level of service I’ve not seen in the states for less than $40 per person, but they never seem to do anything. I wish I had more time here just so I could study this phenomenon. The waitress approaches.

The entrée was a little salty, but I think it usually is. They served baguette slices with the paté, and I spread one on the other. I try to eat it slowly, but it’s difficult. I must teach Alex to savor naturally, rather than with as much conscious energy as I have to summon. The salad is about six leaves of arugula and spinach with a few drops of olive oil. It’s meant to clear and prepare the palate, not to give me folic acid and vitamin A.

When I finish, I sigh and lean back in my chair, and the plate disappears. The Plat is delivered within two minutes, and I just want to look at it.

Two lamb shanks sit next to another piece, probably something around the shoulder. There are bones, but I don’t think I’m going to care. There are two scoops of white rice, and the whole production swims in a quarter inch of a paprika-butter sauce. It doesn’t have the intense flavor I imagine, but the more I eat the more I’m able to appreciate its subtlety. To my everlasting shame I look on my table, then on the one next to me, for the salt shaker. I don’t see one, so my honor is somewhat preserved.

The meat separates from the bone as soon as my knife touches it. I have the bone in my left hand. With the fork, I put no more pressure than it would take to turn a car’s ignition, and the meat comes off in chunks. I prepare several morsels, and then cut them smaller, promising myself I’ll chew each one until the flavor is expended. The first bite is intense, like lamb should be: salty and rich and explosive. The rice is flavorless but for the sauce it swims in.

I can’t finish the lamb. I’m content after the two shanks and a very small portion of the larger piece.

As soon as I sigh, again the plate disappears and a slice of tarte is in front of me. I ask for a café crème. The tarte is a custard filling inside a golden dough shell, with slices of apricot on top. The whole slice is covered with a gelatinous glaze, about an eighth of an inch thick and perfectly clear. It’s served with an enormous spoon, one that would be used to stir soup where I come from. I’m so full I'm tempted to skip it, but that’s just crazy.

The custard is so smooth I can’t imagine an egg yolk ever curdled anywhere near it. The pieces of apricot are tart, and the contrast against the custard and the glaze makes a good balance. I don’t like the huge spoon, though. Somehow I find it distracting. Oh shit, am I starting to become like these people? Living in the richest culinary tradition in the world and finding petty faults with it? No, the spoon’s just too big.

As the last of the crust disappears and I eat the two raspberries on the side, the plate disappears. “l’addition” appears. It’s about 18E with my coffee. I pay and give the pen back, then I walk outside.

Back on the street, I read in the book that I’m about to go to the Man’s office nearby. He rented it when he wanted many consecutive hours uninterrupted. I’m on a walk to follow the early life and career of Earnest Hemingway, and I don’t have a pen. Across the street from the restaurant, there’s a small newsstand. I can buy a pen there. And there occurs one of my favorite events of the whole trip.


Blogger Jess said...

*sigh* Of course, I would totally fail to appreciate the culinary delights of France. Italy was great: lots of veggie options there. France? I'd probably be stuck with nothing but dessert at most places (not that my taste buds rebel at that idea. . .but my stomach). I could go for some illegal cheese, though.

Wed Mar 07, 07:20:00 AM  

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