I am sitting at a café in Sarlat, hoping to get breakfast. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. For, French culture is far too complicated, subtle, and sophisticated for anything as simple as a ton load of sugary cereals, mountains of scrambled eggs and potatoes, and an overabundance of cut, tasteless fruit that will freeze you to the bones. I am referring of course to the one too many buffet breakfasts (they are actually called continental breakfasts even though they bear no resemblance to the European breakfast tradition any more) I have eaten on business trips in the US. Here, you have to find a place that will serve tea in the morning (I am still not sure if a brasserie or a restaurant or a café actually serves tea or not.). The one I stumbled upon this morning is actually called Salon de Thewhich is quite lucky because they do have jars of tea leaves on the counter, labeled with names like Jasmine and Chai and various other exotic products. I was hoping therefore for a teapot and tried to communicate as much to the owner but then gave up. What was presented to me in the end was just a teabag in a cup, in hardly enough quantity to suffice me on a morning such as this one.
My reaction was similar to what I had felt years ago during my first visit to a Starbucks where I had been given a lecture on various tea infusions, only to be presented with a tea bag on the side of a cup in the end. I mean come on, the tea has to be “mashed,” (Derek’s word) immediately in the boiling water. Even a minute or two of delay could damage the taste. Every English or Indian person knows this but Americans have no clue. Neither do the French, I suppose, their traditional drink being café. But at least they do know that a drink like tea or café has to be prepared at the right temperature and so the woman brought me the tea bag inside the cup of hot water, not on the side.
As instructed by her (with an expression that said how stupid not to know that the croissant is never sold at a tea shop but at a bread shop), I had already gone to the Boulangerie across the tea shop and bought myself a croissant, following the philosophy of “Do in Rome as the Romans do.” Then I sat at an outdoor table which is equivalent to being in heaven as far as I am concerned.
It is a perfectly wonderful morning in Sarlat, with just a nip of chill in the air so that I am comfortable in my light, long Ann Taylor Loft cardigan that I have already gotten so much mileage out of. I don’t know what I will do when it is time to replace it. Because it is very thin and lightweight and being black, goes with everything. It can be packed in a small backpack or just thrown over the shoulders stylishly the way the French women do.
I have been reading Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon but after I googled him and came across several critiques commenting on how he exploited his son, storing the kid’s every action and every word for future use in his writing. And suddenly, the unease that had been at the back of my mind surfaced, yes, I had felt all along that the kid Luke was a bit overindulged. That Gopnik had gone to Paris at the New Yorker’s expense to do nothing more than visiting the French Institute at night with his son in a stroller and cooking huge French meals that no one ate. It seems like an incredibly good shindig. This is what happens to writers in America who make it. The rest of us just languish in obscurity, making our living by some other means. And yet, when you note the difference between the quality of Gopnik’s writing and many others I know, you realize that it is not that great. In fact, his book about Paris is full of trivialities which he justifies in the Introduction by saying that small things are just as important as big ones.
In fact, he sheds little light on the current state of French literature, politics, society, or culture, focusing on saving a small brasserie in the Sorbonne area instead. I can’t help thinking that I would have written something more meaningful about France had I been given a chance but the only problem is that I don’t know the language. But given the kind of shindig at New Yorker rates, I could have learned it, and very quickly too, I might add, for I am good at languages.
Back to the Salon de The. While I waited for the tea, I watched two youngish men sitting at a nearby table. They were obviously French. The grumpy waitress who knows no English brought them two steaming cups of hot chocolate. One man opened the white bag from the Boulangerie, the same bag that I have, and took out a chocolate pastrie of some sort. I don’t know its name. Then he ceremoniously dipped it into the hot chocolate and began to eat it with such savoring expression I wanted to ask him for a bite. The other man just sipped his hot chocolate. Then the older man passed him the white bag, obviously asking him to help himself, and the younger man silently, gratefully opened the bag, took out an identical pastrie. He used both hands to break it in two, not horizontally, but vertically, so that he could dip the long rod of it into his hot chocolate and eat it greedily, hungrily. Chocolate on chocolate. The idea thrilled me; it seemed to me the essence of sensory fulfillment. But the trick was to only have one. An American would buy ten of them until he was sick to the stomach and would never relish it as much again; the French men got up after eating only one each. A sensory high can only be achieved when you stop well before you are satisfied, so that the next chocolate pastrie will taste just as magical as the last one.
The younger man politely waiting until the pastrie was offered to him, the silent demeanors of the two men, the peaceful camaraderie they shared, is to me the essence of French life. I am sure that if I were hanging by the door of a train, they would leap up to their feet, help me on board, then disappear into the night.
I love French men. All the mythology about them happens to be true. I don’t think they cheat on their wives as much as they are reported to be. So far, all the husbands I have met hang by the sides of their wives. There is a sense of manner and etiquette and courtesy.
J’aime les hommes français! Thanks to Google translate for that last bit. In fact, I have been using it quite a bit on my little Gateway computer (Gateway Jindabad! Long Live Gateway), translating my messages into French and sending them to unsuspecting hotels for reservations. In fact, given a little more time, I could practice phrases too, because there is a feature called voice.
Anyway, it is nice to be able to say, “J’aime les hommes français.” I love French men!