France part Un: Le Vrai Thing

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m not from here
But people tell me
It’s not like it used to be
They say I should’ve been here
Back about ten years
Before it got ruined by folks like me

—Larry McMurtry, “I’m Not From Here”

The Glorious People's Republic of Coke

Here comes a long, slightly downbeat meditation on our first dinner in Paris, in which I try to get all that “I’m a traveler, not a tourist” BS out of the way. Don’t worry, I won’t go on at this length about every single dinner we had.

The best thing L & I brought with us to France was Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, a funny and nimble memoir by a New Yorker (and a writer for the New Yorker) who lived in Paris for five years. We spent much of the trip reading bits of Gopnik aloud to one another, chuckling over his bon mots, agreeing and disagreeing with his generalizations (“American guys, they drive a car like this. French guys, they drive a car like this…”), delighting when we experienced something we had just read about, or when we read in Gopnik about something we had just seen.

AG talks a lot about Paris’ magnificent “commonplace civilization,” which stems, he says, from a very French talent for making or doing ordinary things much better than anyone needs. This includes the way packages are wrapped, both beautifully and unnecessarily; the way a French woman wears a simple scarf, just so, in a way nobody from this side of the Atlantic can quite duplicate; and all the little improvised courtesies that are the flip side of France’s official bureaucratic rudeness. And, bien sur, it includes Parisian restaurants, and French bread and coffee and wine and cheese.

“Most people who love Paris,” Gopnik writes (by which he means most Americans who love Paris, though Canadians would qualify too) “love it because the first time they came, they ate something better than they had ever eaten before.” The astonishing first meal in Paris was an experience shared by pretty much every American in France from Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson in the 1780s through to young Adam Gopnik in the 1970s. Catherine de Medici (AG informs me) brought Italian cooks, then the best in the world, to Paris in the sixteenth century. The French Revolution forced the chefs of the great aristocratic houses to go public, opening up their cooking to the rabble or at least the bourgeoisie. And for the next two centuries, it was pretty much certain that any random meal eaten by any jet-lagged (or sea-lagged) North American traveler in any random Paris brasserie would be an order of magnitude better than anything the traveler had ever tasted back home.

But that transcendent first meal in Paris is much harder to come by today. This is not because of any great decline in French cooking—although it’s certainly true that while the Calvinism of the anti-fat (and now anti-carb) Reformation has swept every other land before it, the French remain devout and loyal to the Holy Trinity of butter, olive oil, and lard. But it’s really because of the great catching up that cooking in the rest of the world has done since the 1970s. (Let’s raise a glass to Julia Child at this point for her part in that transformation, or maybe pour a forty of Chateauneuf du Pape on the curb, as our own culinary machine entertainingly suggests. Does Pope’s Crib Nine even come in forties?)

So Gopnik writes:

The new visitor, trying out the trout baked in foil on his first night in Paris, will probably be comparing it with the trout baked in foil back home at, oh, Le Lac de Feu, in Cleveland, or at Chez Alfie, in Leeds, or Matilda Qui Danse, in Adelaide. … Even the cassis sorbet may not be quite as good as the kind he makes at home with his Sorbet-o-matic.

Matilda Qui Danse. Hee. We would, as it turned out, have many spectacular meals in France. Like our second night’s dinner, which was North African food in the Marais; or lunch in a jaw-droppingly beautiful village in Provence; or this hilarious fondue place where the wine was served in rubber-nippled baby bottles and the proprietor made all the female guests jump over the table to get to their seat; or an astonishing chocolate mousse we went back for twice in some random Montmartre bar that did in fact create just the “I was blind but now I see” religious impact all those previous travelers were talking about.

But that first meal in Paris remains the one with the pressure on it, the one with all the expectations to live up to. On our own first night in the city of lights, we staggered in a jet-lag daze, like almost every other tourist in the city, into a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys across the Seine from Notre Dame. The streets were lined with restaurants, but the throngs of American tourists and the high number of places with names like “Le Vrai Paris” (the real, or the true, Paris), hinted to us that this wasn’t, you know, le vrai Paris.

Ah, le vrai Paris. That’s what we, and all the other tourists, are looking for, right? The true Paris. Not that crappy fake Paris they roll out to dupe the tourists. Authenticity. The real thing. But I am pretty confident that the one place we will not find le vrai Paris is in a chain of restaurants actually called Le Vrai Paris. Just like the best yogurt in the entire country is not, in fact, served at a stand in the mall called “The Country’s Best Yogurt” and “The Great Canadian Bagel Experience” (a name that L, closet Canadian-basher, finds unaccountably hilarious) is not where you should go to have the greatest possible Canadian bagel experience. Whatever that might entail.

Maybe I’ll open a restaurant called “Le Vrai Boston” or “The True Boston Experience.” I’ll serve frozen pasta from Trader Joe’s and make all the diners spend nine years getting a History PhD.

So we double-checked Lonely Planet, the bible of all foreign tourists desperate to imagine they are not in fact foreign tourists, and sure enough, there was a stern warning to avoid precisely the neighborhood we were in. “Pity the foreign swine-philistines all!-gorging at these filthy troughs,” said Lonely Planet (I’m paraphrasing). “Their eyes will never look upon le vrai Paris.”

When I worked for the Let’s Go travel guides, we were instructed not to do this: given that 99% of our readers would be tourists in whatever place the book was about, it seemed unsporting to denounce them for committing the crime of being tourists. But Lonely Planet takes shots at those detestable tourists on almost every page. And I can’t help thinking that is why it’s muscled Let’s Go and Berkeley’s Rough Guide out of the top spots in the budget travel market. This is the paradox of travel writing and traveling in general. What we want when we travel is a way to avoid people like ourselves.

Lonely Planet caters directly to this desire, but of course any place the LP guide describes as unspoiled or authentic—le vrai Paris, n’est-ce pas?—will soon be overrun by tourists carrying their own copies of the LP guide. Which is why you need a new edition every year. The act of going there in some way negates the reason you came.

The definitive work on this Catch-22 is, for me, Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which I read while I was researching for Let’s Go in 1998, and which I still rank among the great Generation X novels, whatever you may think of the movie version or of Alex Garland’s subsequent career.

Anyway, thanks to Lonely Planet, we were able to escape the dreaded Tourist Quarter. We wandered down some darkened streets and chose, basically at random, a welcoming-looking brasserie on the rue des Ecoles called the Balzar. The food was great, if not life-changing. Mostly, I remember: the green beans, so fortified with butter as to have ceased being vegetables entirely (just the sort of vegetables I can get behind); the wine (a great Bordeaux, “muscular, with nothing to prove,” let’s say); and the waiters, who like most waiters in Paris, strike you as waiters—confident old professionals rather than aspiring screenwriters and aerobics instructors.

Two days later, we read in the Gopnik book:

The Balzar, on the rue des Ecoles, in the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris, happens to be the best restaurant in the world.

Sacre bleu! Le vrai Paris, and we’d stumbled onto it entirely by accident!

Well, I had no choice but to regard our accidental discovery of the Balzar as a great personal victory. I am, for the most part, terrible at choosing restaurants, or really at choosing food of any kind. It’s not that I choose badly, it’s that I can’t choose at all. Major, life-changing decisions are never hard for me. Indeed, they never feel like decisions. I just know what’s right. But the less a choice matters to me (Indian or Chinese food tonight? do you like the green skirt or the blue? paper or plastic?), the more difficult it is for me to muster up any sort of preference. I’ve had more than enough “What do you wanna do tonight?” “I dunno. What do you wanna do?” conversations to know that I am not alone in this affliction. But I also know that my case is particularly acute. When an old girlfriend of mine broke up with me, after three years together, in my first year of grad school, I was pretty shattered, and I begged her to tell me why—to name some flaws or faults in myself that I could change to win her back. The only concrete reason she would give for dumping me was my apparently infuriating inability to decide where I wanted to go for dinner.

Here’s Gopnik on the waiters at the Balzar:

It is the waiters who give the Balzar its soul. A team of the same ten men has been in place for decades. They are courteous, warmhearted, ironic, and mildly lubricious. (They have been known to evaluate sotto voce, the size and shape of a woman’s rear even as they pull out the table to make way for it.) They work hard. By tradition at the Balzar, the plats arrive beautifully arranged on an oval platter and then are carefully transferred by the waiter to a round plate. This doubles the work but creates an effect. Whenever I am feeling blue, I like to go to the Balzar and watch a waiter gravely transfer a steak au poivre and its accompaniments from an oval platter to a plate, item by item. It reaffirms my faith in the sanity of superfluous civilization.

So. It may not have been the absolute best food ever to touch our lips, but the New Yorker called it “the best restaurant in the world.” That vrai enough for ya? What better proof could you ask for of L & my good taste, and indeed of our innate superiority to all those other tourists? We felt pretty flush for the next couple of days. L mentioned the coup in a post card home; I composed a long and self-congratulatory weblog post in my head.

But then, le dénouement. It was a week later when we read the sequel to AG’s Balzar column, farther along in the book. Turns out the Balzar was bought out, in the summer of 1998, by the Flo Group, a chain now owning virtually all the brasseries in Paris. It is no longer, Gopnik sadly reports, the best restaurant in the world. It’s just another pretty good Parisian restaurant.

O crushing blow. O cruel twist of fate. The taste of those haricots verts turned to ashes in my mouth. (Delicious, golden, buttery ashes. But ashes nonetheless.) Live by the New Yorker columnist, die by the New Yorker columnist. Le vrai Paris is a harsh mistress, and she does not give her favors away that easily, monsieur.

AG and the other Balzar regulars did fight back against the decline of the place at the time, grabbing some media attention, and staging a sit-in, which he drolly describes:

There was, I sensed, a flaw in our strategy: If you take over a restaurant as an act of protest and then order dinner at the restaurant, what you have actually done is gone to the restaurant and had dinner. … Having come to say that you just won’t take it anymore, you have to add sheepishly that you will take it, au point and with béarnaise sauce.

But despite la Resistance, the Flo Group prevailed, and things at the Balzar have never been quite the same. Rumor has it that the new management welcomes tour groups from (gasp) America. The food is still excellent, but certain showy items, like oeufs crevettes, have crept onto the menu. The waiters are still canny old professionals, but now, alas, you must eat your food on the same plate the waiter brings you. And those same waiters will, after seventy minutes, bring you your check—even if you haven’t asked for it! Zut alors! So goes the decline of civilization. Gopnik says he’s never been back to the Balzar. “I would still send visiting Americans there,” he allows. But it’s no longer, you know, le vrai Paris.

Sigh. Those green beans were pretty good, though.

3 Comments

  1. I was just reading an old French recipe for green beans where you cook them for hours, adding a pound of butter every hour. By the time they’re done they cease to resemble green beans in any meaningful way, but they sure are good.

  2. Yeah, that’s exactly what these were.

    In other words: MAN TRUE!

  3. …the waiters, who like most waiters in Paris, strike you as waiters—confident old professionals rather than aspiring screenwriters and aerobics instructors.

    So true. Which is funny, because the rude Parisian waiter is a classic stereotype. They must only be rude to Americans who sit at their tables and bray in slow, loud drawls at the garssson. In my experience, Parisian waiters are like trained commandoes. One has merely to set down the fork with a tiny bit more authority than the last time, and the plate disappears. Another one magically appears in its place, perhaps with a salad of tender baby greens, or cantaloupes embraced by prosciutto. They are sleek and efficient, silent when making dishes vanish, but calmly effusive in their praise for the food and your eating enjoyment. When Parisian waiters approve your food choice, they make it sound as if choosing le numero trois was the most splendid choice anyone with an eating orifice has ever made, and that they are holding themselves back from calling in the other waiters to witness your culinary brilliance.

    In terms of le vrai Paris, it reminds me of our trip to Florence (slap me anytime for typing that sentence). We arrived late and also determined not to be sucked into the $15 cappucinos off the Duomo’s square. We stumbled into a deserted bar, staffed by a John Turturro type in a stained apron. Soccer was on a TV with the volume cranked up, except it was in Italian of course so we had no clue who was winning. With our rudimentary Italian (consisting of the phrases, “two tickets to see James Bond, please”, and “may I try these shoes on?”), we managed to communicate that we wanted the roast chicken. That chicken, served in that dingy bar to the romantic soundtrack of Italian men screaming, was the best goddamned chicken I have had to this day.

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