First Days in France

Paris was nice, but that’s wasted ink because Paris is always nice. It’s the most special of all the places in the world to me. I’d never been there in the winter before, except for a month ago. It was cold and there had been snow a couple of days earlier but it was mostly gone from the streets.

The sales were on. In France the government tells retailers when they can have sales, and it’s twice a year – January and July – for about three weeks and it’s a very big deal. Banners announcing “SOLDES” are splashed across every shop window. Lots and lots of merchandise is marked down – not just a random rack of plaid pants stuck in the corner – and it gets multiple markdowns over the three-week period. Pretty exciting.

I planned part of my shopping around lunch at Galeries Lafayette, one of the biggest department stores. Calvin and I went to their cafeteria before and I had to return, for one reason only. The food is fine – there’s a pasta station and a salad bar and a sandwich counter and a grill with one or two specials – but the real charm for me comes from the serve-yourself wine dispensers. They look just like the machines where you get soda at a fast-food place, except they’re labeled “Macon Villages” and “Bordeaux AOC” and such. You take a glass or a little pichet and you go to town. It makes drinking wine just so…fun. Shopping is rough work.

I had a meal at Au Pied de Cochon. It’s a chain now and owned by a restaurant conglomerate – a big eastern syndicate, as Lucy van Pelt would say – but still a famous and popular place with Parisians. I ordered their signature breaded pig’s trotter, which looks like the business end of a Louisville Slugger. It looks like a forearm on a plate, which, I suppose, it is. I had it once in the Mexico City branch and it was delicious. There’s a good deal of surgery necessary to extract the meaty bits from the skin and tendonry but it’s worth it. The meat is hammy but denser, and it’s served with frites and Sauce Béarnaise.

Well, what a disappointment it was. Maybe it was just bad luck and I got a dud or maybe they took me as an easy mark for unloading the second-tier trotters but even with careful knifework I don’t think more than four or five good bites of meat came out. They give you a separate plate for the bones and ligaments you remove, and that plate piled up very quickly with little nourishment to show for my effort. The carafe of Beaujolais was inexpensive, at least, so the meal wasn’t a total loss.

The culinary component of my two days in Paris was gloriously crowned by dinner at Chez Omar, a magnet worldwide for lovers of couscous. It’s always crowded and there’s always a line but it was my lucky night, for over there against the wall was a tiny table with one chair. I think the other chairs had been taken to other, more crowded tables, but I was delighted to have a place to sit. I doubt anyone else was seated so quickly on a Friday evening and I saw a few glances of envy or disdain but I didn’t care. Enjoy your wait! That’s what you get for going out to eat with OTHER PEOPLE!

Couscous is the star attraction, and it didn’t disappoint. I had mine with Merguez sausage that had clearly been made in-house. It wasn’t the deep chorizo-red of Merguez I’ve enjoyed in American restaurants but the flavor was rich and spicy and complex.

A couple – he in his mid-40’s and she a decade younger – were sitting up front, just against the glass of the window. The woman was crying, not wailing but clearly she was upset. She kept her face pointed toward the window. There wasn’t much talking going on but I sensed that she was crying because of something he had told her. Maybe he was breaking up with her, but they were holding hands across the table, his left and her right. Whatever the bad news was, I can’t help but wonder if he told her in a restaurant in hopes of keeping the response to a dramatic minimum. It was a difficult scene to watch but difficult like a Bergman movie. I wouldn’t want to see it often but there’s a kind of beauty in it because it’s real.

From the train out of Paris I admired the veil of snow that lay over the countryside. Within an hour, though, it was gone.