PISTOLS AT DAWN
The regulars have been looking at me sideways since I came in here, staring me down each time they enter and exit the bar which works out to about every twelve minutes – the cycle of a cigarette and enough wine to whet their appetite for another.
First, the two female bartenders pretend they don’t hear me. “Excusez-moi?”
Then they pretend they can’t understand me. “Un plus de vin s'il vous plaît?”
They pour my wine as if I killed their dog. If I look away, I know they will spit in my glass.
“Do not speak French like Brittney Spears,” says the regular with the black eye, first smiling then wincing as his crow’s feet crinkle the black scabby bits. The shiner, I soon learn, a parting gift from his ex.
“How about I don’t speak like Brittney Spears and you don’t tell me what to do?” I counter. Not particularly clever but I’m exhausted. The Ambien I’d saved for my flight from San Francisco to Paris had tragically been packed in my checked luggage and no matter how many times I turned my carryon inside out, was not to be found. Once I landed, there was the matter of meeting up with a friend of a friend to get the keys to my flat where I was to live for the next three months. Once I found the building, I couldn’t find the flat. In Paris the first floor is not the first floor but the zero floor which makes one flight up the first floor and the second flight up the third floor which makes things rather confusing when you are looking for your flat on the fourth floor which means it is on the fifth floor and the stairs are narrow and wind-y and the automatic lights keep clicking off and you do not know your way around enough yet to know where they’re located so that you can flip them back on.
Once inside my flat on the fourth/fifth floor I realize, I can’t stay in! This is Paris! This is the only night in my entire life that it will ever be my first night in Paris!
So out I go.
The barfly with the shiner offers to buy me a glass of wine. The bartenders roll their eyes in protestation.
“Quoi?” I ask smiling, imagining eventually they will realize I am a nice girl who has moved to a foreign country with no ulterior motive.
“Do. You. Want. A. Wine?”
I don’t really Want. A. Wine. since there’s a full glass in front of me and I’m drinking white and white goes warm if it sits out, but if I refuse I run the risk of snapping the delicate olive branch proffered by the regular and no one understands the importance of being accepted at their local more than I.
“Ah, oui! Merci!” I say, continuing to smile, concentrating on not sounding like Brittney Spears.
The bartender shoots me death ray looks as she bends exaggeratedly down to retrieve a bottle of white from the ‘fridge.
I live on this street for 92 days.
The bartenders never relent.
I can understand how being in Paris for a brief stay – say a long weekend or even a week – can turn the hostile service into nothing more than an amusing footnote, one of a myriad ways in which Paris lives up to its laudable visions:
People really do walk around with baguettes under their arms!
Boys and girls hold hands in the streets! Shiny, rain-splattered, cobblestoned streets!
The women are all so chic and beautiful! And thin! All they eat is foie gras and cheese!
Le service est pas mal! Oui oui tres pas mal! C’est atroche!
But after a month I find myself bracing for confrontation every time I make a reservation. Reading restaurant reviews makes my mouth salivate and my heart palpitate. Just thinking about dining or drinking out and my stomach twists into knots of insecurity.
Article after article I read in an attempt to find validating, historical reasons why service in Paris is so awful, inevitably ends with the author amused by the affectation, expressing a reverence for the “theatrics” of it all and offering up tips for how customers can mitigate the experience. Some suggestions I read include:
“Order all of your courses at the same time.”
“Do not sit at a table for six if there are only two of you.”
“Don’t wave your arms to attract attention.”
In other words, basic etiquette whether you’re dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the 17th or your grandmother’s house in Boca.
One day I’m eating dinner in a restaurant and ask for a glass of wine and a glass of water. The waiter brings the wine but not the water.
No matter, I think, he is going to get it in a second.
But he doesn’t. He returns to the service station where he slouches disconsolately and twirls a tightly rolled cigarette in his hand.
I don’t want to be “that person” and especially not “that American person” so I don’t call him over. I will wait until he remembers that I asked for water, or until he looks up and sees me and remembers that I asked for water or….until my food arrives. This seems like a convenient time to ask for water because, you know, he’s right there.
“Oh!” I exclaim as if I have just had a brilliant idea, “Un eau s'il vous plaît?”
“Oui,” my waiter says.
But the water never comes. I can see it just over there at the wait station beside him, a dozen carafes lined up, dripping beads of condensation, waiting for what, if not to be consumed?
I decide to get it myself.
I walk to the wait station where my waiter is waiting, twirling. Surprised to see me!
I smile apologetically and gesture toward the carafes in what I hope is the universal sign for, I would love take one of these carafes of water to my table so that I may drink it.
My waiter looks at me. He looks at the carafes. He looks back at me and raises his eyebrows. I think of this scene from Woody Allen’s Love and Death.
Anton Inbedkov: Shall we say pistols at Dawn?
Boris Grushenko: We can say it. I don’t know what it means, but we can say it.
Another time I’m eating lunch in a café when a glass shattering sound causes me look up in alarm. I notice nothing amiss and I return to my meal.
Seconds later – more glass shattering.
I look out the window: nothing.
I glance around the restaurant: nothing.
And just as I am about to return to my food a torrent of, there is no better way to say it, glass-shattering noise reverberates throughout the café.
I stand up and move to the other side of the beam, the beam that has been blocking my view of the bartender smashing wine bottles into a garbage bin. I watch as she grabs an empty wine bottle out of a crate and SMASHES IT into the bin. The bottom breaks off, it is a jagged weapon which she must SMASH SMASH again against the side of the bin until it has fractured into a thousand tiny pieces.
I look around at the other diners; they are all quietly eating their meals, speaking to each other is hushed voices, doing whatever it is they’re doing but none of them is standing in the middle of the café with their mouth agape. That’s just me.
I return to my seat thinking that in Paris, smashing bottles as a means of disposal is du riguer and as I am here to explore another culture and not simply act in accordance with what I already know, I should just go with the flow. And after all, it can’t last forever.
I can’t take it!
“Can you…I’m sorry, it’s so loud!” I say pleadingly to the bartender, hoping that by this she will understand I wish for her to stop.
The bartender looks at me sadly, and says, “I am sorry, it is something I must do.”
SMASH SMASH SMASH
I don’t know what to say. It makes no sense. I am rooted to my spot.
The bartender looks up at me, surprised to see I’m still there.
“It’s just that I’m eating…” I say by way of attempting to explain why I wish the glass smashing would stop.
The bartender looks over at my table: a plate of food, a glass of wine, a book, my bag. I think, maybe she didn’t understand before. Maybe she thought I wouldn’t mind because I was just sitting there…not eating.
She looks at me and shrugs.
I hand her my credit card and while the machine calculates the exchange rate she smashes a bottle to smithereens.