The waiter was surpassingly rude. I expected standoffish, maybe disdainful, but this behavior was extreme. The menus slammed down, the extra place settings grudgingly removed. The language barrier impenetrable.
Let me explain about that.
I apologize, genuinely, to the people of France whose language I cannot master. I am not an arrogant, rude American who thinks everyone the world over should learn English for my convenience. (Neither am I a European citizen with a continental imperative to be multi-linguistic.) I’ve just never been a linguist. I took Latin in high School after not surviving in French. My university language requirement was waived through a combination of technicalities and the idea that knowing a computer language was a correlated fluency. But that’s history, not attribution. I simply don’t hear other languages, can’t reproduce them, can read only a smattering here and there. Cab drivers in Madrid are still laughing at my attempts at Spanish which finally reduced to repeating aquí two or three times when I thought i was at the right destination.
So i didn’t expect this waiter in a fine French restaurant waiter to cater to me in English; but rude’s another matter, especially on a beautiful night in the City of Light.
The night before, after walking through a quiet city subdued by the closed store fronts of those Parisians away for Autumn vacation, we ate on the rue Saint Louis en l’Isle at a lovely, stone-walled, small restaurant with superb service, friendly demeanor and exceptional food. Because it was near Notre Dame de Paris, I expect the clientele had other visitors among it, but there were clearly native diners there too, and they were hospitable and interested in us, rather than offended by interlopers. It was a delightful convivial evening ,
Tonight, however, after surviving the human wave of cell-phone flashing art lovers at the Louvre, a lovely meal in a refined restaurant seemed just the ticket. Enter the curmudgeonly waiter. Slam, whisk, ignore questions; I finally just pointed to a prix fixe and let him proceed.
You’d think he’d never stepped outside into the beauty of a Paris sunset, or the soft light arcing over the Seine and segueing into bridge lights and boat lights and street lamps, and buildings lit as part of a city-wide electric canvas. You’d think he’d never sensed the rich coffee aromas and heard the chiming silverware sounds floating out from the restaurants around the Place des Voges. The bustling stores of Rue de iRvoli? The street windowed shops of the Marais? The view from Montmartre? The street cafes at night?
O.K. there are dark places too, and perhaps this man had a rotten time of it, or just broke up with his mistress, or lost his wife to someone else, or had two kids running from the police. Perhaps he was ill or simply tired. Perhaps tourists can be, by and large, offensive. He and I didn’t communicate enough to know, there was no looking into his eyes, nor the slightest nuance of anything but menu-based struggle.
But such empathy doesn’t wholly resolve the irony of the denouement that ended our evening. Once the penultimate course was cleared, the hostess came over to our table. She hoped we enjoyed our meal, she said with a tone of amelioration. “Here are your desert choices,” she continued and handed us elegant little cafe menus, charmingly written in a handwriting font, bordered by rococo ink-work and most notably written entirely in English.
Perhaps Americans only eat dessert.
Perhaps we needed to walk along the Seine to get the texture of Paris back.
Perhaps I continue to try to learn French.
And, most of all, perhaps Paris is a favorite place to return to regardless.