Sunday, June 07, 2009

Slow Food

Time for our general observations of some mystifying aspects of French culture:
Once you enter a restaurant, it will take you hours to get out. It doesn't matter if you were thinking of just having a fast crepe, a croque or a salad. It will take forever. The reason is not what all tourists think it is; namely, rudeness. It's a system of food delivery that probably stretches back to the ancien regime. Marie Antoinette probably said "let them it cake" when somebody asked for the check. The check doesn't come until you ask for it. Asking for it is difficult as waiters tend to disappear or ignore you for long stretches of time. Having been to Spain recently, although similar, there they are happy to take your money* faster.
1. There are fewer waiters in Parisian restaurants than there should be per capita. The humbler the restaurant, the fewer waiters on hand. It dawned on me that if you go to Taillevent, there must be a waiter for every one of your limbs and your five senses. But that is not my case. My observations are based on "cheap" places.
2. The waiter/ess may or may not acknowledge that you have arrived and sat on a table outside (this happens indoors too). Once the waiter acknowledges you, they act as if they don't know that you are there to eat. Perhaps they think your feet are tired or you sat down to ponder the meaning of life. Perhaps they think you just want to have coffee or a beverage, in which case, they will not bother bringing the menu. This is not a system about efficiency, but about personal freedom and choice, as dictated by the tenets of the French Revolution. Therefore, it is up to you to ask for it, since under no circumstance will the waiter have the menu on hand as they approach your table. As they go in search of your menu, they stop at every table along the way to inquire if others have decided, if they have finished, would they like some coffee, dessert anyone, etc. Before they bring you your menu, they finish all the chores that they set themselves to do along the way. The same happens with your meal and the same happens with the check. We have calculated that unless you eat a sandwich or a crepe on the street, the average lunch or dinner in Paris can't possibly take less than an hour. Not that we are in a rush, but idle people with time on their hands and a wandering spirit (i.e. tourists) have things to do too.
And please, do not take this as criticism. I, for one, do not always appreciate the well oiled machine that is service in New York restaurants, where everybody seems to be on the timer of an explosive device which will detonate in approximately 25 minutes, from soup to nuts. I'm just trying to understand the underlying essence of the Proustian lunch.
* The check dilemma also has me pondering whether the French have an issue with money. Perhaps they think it's vulgar to bring it up. To wit: We searched for activities at the Louvre we could engage on in an effort to improve our halting French. On their website, they list absolutely everything there is to know about the lectures, conferences and workshops available. Everything, that is, except the price. The price probably lies in some unfathomable recess where nobody who possesses an ounce of logic would think to look. We even went to the museum in person and could not find the prices listed at the information desk next to the box office. I guess money is not the most important thing in their minds. Time is not of the essence; it is as fluid and as long and as leisurely as all the tomes that Proust devoted to searching for it.
This is not necessarily bad. Indeed, it can be enormously delightful and charming, but coming from New York, it takes a little adjusting to.

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