Mrs. Chatterbox and I were recently discussing our trip to France last year. We had a great time and experienced none of the snootiness for which Paris (excluding the rest of France) is famous. This wasn’t so in ’76 when we were newlyweds and backpacking through Europe with a copy of Frommer’s Europe on Ten Dollars a Day. Back then we had several interesting experiences in Paris that involved ordering food in restaurants.
First, I need to confess that I speak no foreign languages. Because I’m a bit on the swarthy side I’m often taken for a homeboy in many countries bordering the Mediterranean (with the exception of France.) Locals who address me are usually surprised I don’t speak their language. Not so with Mrs. C. who took eight years of high school and college French.
So there we were back in ‘76, two young kids experiencing the world for the first time when we slipped into a Parisian bistro for some grub. As usual, Mrs. C. did the ordering while I looked on with a vapid smile. When she’d finished ordering, the waiter, who’d been sneering the whole time she’d been speaking, started yelling at her. I didn’t need to understand a word of French to know that this fellow was being disrespectful and rude. I was considering treating him to an American knuckle sandwich, but the smile on my wife’s face got bigger and bigger the nastier he became.
By the time the waiter turned on his heels and marched off, my wife was smiling like she had a wire coat hanger stuck in her mouth. I said, “That guy sounded awfully rude. What did he say?”
Beaming, she explained, “He said that it makes him sick when tourists come to Paris to practice their high school French. He said, ‘You think we don’t know what you’re up to? We can tell you Dutch people a mile away.’”
I was confused. “Your French wasn’t good enough to convince him you were French, yet you’re happy about it?”
“Don’t you get it?” she explained. “My French was good enough to convince him I was European! He didn’t know I was an American.”
To this day Mrs. C. claims this as the best compliment her French ever received.
But there was another time when her French nearly caused a disaster; it was years later and her French had gotten rusty. I was craving lamb chops and Mrs. C. ordered them after we’d sat down in a small Parisian restaurant. When the food arrived I was shocked. She’d ordered lamb all right—lamb brain. It was grey with ropey veins and arteries dangling from it. Grey juice was oozing as it rolled about on the plate.
I stared at it for a moment, wondering if this spongy, gelatinous organ had fallen out of Igor’s bag on his way to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. Mrs. C. was horrified and couldn’t think of anything to say.
The waiter was standing by with an amused look on his face. He approached our table and said in perfect English, “Perhaps Monsieur would prefer a hamburger?”
All I could do was nod, gratefully.