Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Taste of France

“There’s a pubic hair in my pasta,” I said calmly, with as much dignity as I could muster. Across the table from me, Karen paused in mid-chew and put down the utensils, her eyes quickly scanning the surrounding diners for any undue attention. Perhaps they heard me say “pubic.” We were in Grenoble, and people understood English very well. She moved the silver pot of flowering lavender out of the way, leaned over the white-draped table and inspected the black, curly hair, complete with a white bulbous follicle, sitting on a freshly made goat cheese and spinach ravioli like an innocent bit of extra garnish.

“Could be a chest hair,” she said.

Karen is English and will suffer almost any humiliation quietly rather than make a fuss.

“It’s too curly for a chest hair. Could be from an arm pit, I’ll give you that,” I said, raising a hand to get the waiter’s attention. “Pit or crotch, I’m not going to eat it.”

“You could just put it to one side,” Karen suggested. The fingers of her right hand smoothed the napkin, ironed it against the table. “I mean, what are you hoping to achieve?”

English or not, in this instance she wasn’t merely adhering to a genetic and cultural disposition for confrontation avoidance. Having lived in Grenoble for years, she had reason to question what greater good complaining would serve. In England or the US, apologies would have been forthcoming, as would a fresh portion or a different dish at no charge. But this was France and we both knew better.

Only three days earlier, on a cobblestone square in Aix-en-Provence, I had been served a salad with Lollo Rosso lettuce, artichoke hearts, pine nuts, and dirt. Not a modest little dusting of dirt crunching between my teeth, evidence of a somewhat superficial rinsing, but a hearty clump of good, French soil. I could have grown cress in it. I alerted the waitress, expecting a modicum of remorse and a new salad. Instead I got an overbearing smile and “C’est un peu de terre…” It’s a bit of dirt. What’s all the to-do about? I insisted the dirt should not be in my salad. She looked at me as you look at a chihuahua having a yapping fit, scooped up the ruffled lettuce leaf with the dirt, and threw it on the ground. “VoilĂ !”

I generally prefer my salads without compost, and any type of hair in my food dramatically reduces a restaurant’s chances of repeat business from me. But I admit to harboring a secret admiration for the lack of humility the average French service provider displays. Though occasionally counterproductive in the business sense of the word, it is at the very least honest. At best, it is what France is all about: a sense of equality and pride, a refusal to ingratiate. Compare this with the American cashier squeezing out a “Thank you for shopping at Walmart,” when really he just wants you to pick up your change and exit his personal planet. American service is second to none when it comes to free water expediently delivered at the table, Disney smiles, and verbal smoothies, but forced pleasantries often leave you feeling more resented than do the irreverent French.

by Rikke Jorgensen, Medium |  Read more:
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