The last thing I thought I would do on a cool Parisian evening in the height of summer was dine with an American.
“Menu anglais?” the sixty-something waitress asked as she ushered us towards a tiny table for two.
“Main non!” I exclaimed my annoyance, offended that she had assumed I had no knowledge of the language although I had addressed her in French.
Brasserie Flottes is located between place Vendôme and faubourg Saint-Honoré. Dating back to 1966, it exudes a certain charm with its elaborate stain-glass windows and warm wood panelling. But that evening, the tourist-filled restaurant had the tables set too close for comfort.
An American lady of a certain age sat at an adjacent table. She was dining alone. With almost no command of French, she tried to order a clear soup with plain bread. She gave the impatient waitress specific instructions for the soup and insisted on little condiments. “I don’t want any pepper in it. Does it have too much salt? Don’t give me too much salt.” She finished by ordering a carafe of water much to the waitress’ scornful eye.
Mr G and I looked at one another and withheld the mutual eye rolling. By that stage of the trip, we had come across many of her compatriots with similar attitudes. Nothing but typical Americans shouting their specific orders across Europe. With their “Give me this, and that’s how I want you to prepare it” as their mantra, they often demanded that their food and drink to be prepared à l’américaine, a request as strange as ordering a decaf in a Roman stand up espresso bar.
The American must have sensed something in our restrained body language. She turned towards us and explained that she had been taken ill the day before and could barely keep anything down. We nodded, smiled and wished her well.
When in France, I like to indulge in regional specialities, and when the word aligot sprang from the menu, my choice of accompaniment was made. Aligot, a speciality of the Auvergne region, is made with a mixture of potatoes mashed with melted Tomme cheese and garlic; its smooth and almost elastic texture was enough to induce mouth-watering on command.
L’américaine was served her clear soup, but not before she quizzed the waitress to its ingredients again. When a bowl of aligot was placed on our table, she pointed to it and praised the culinary qualities of the dish. She had ordered it the night before and lamented that all she could eat on her last evening in Paris was a bland soup.
Her comments invited discussion. She was well-versed with French food, specialities of its region and most of all travel; three points in common that engaged us in conversation. She spoke of her life with passion, the exotic places where she had lived and travelled, the remote parts of Turkey, Laos and North Africa, recounting many happy experiences with her now deceased husband. As an industrialist, his work took him round the globe, and with no children, they compensated by living a life of adventures. Despite her engaging stories, I felt a touching dash of nostalgia in her joie de vivre.
“But Paris is the city,” she explained. Her extended family offered her a reunion in the United States for her birthday, but she wanted to see Paris. “One more time. Just in case I am no longer mobile and able to travel.”
Paris… One more time.
I could easily become her in my later years, yearning for that last whirlwind of francophonie, one more taste of foie gras, one more sip of Chateau d’Yquem, one more stroll along boulevard st-germain, one more… Just one more.
Over dessert, two Armagnacs and a glass of water for her, we toasted to travel, and the defining moments it brings us.
The best memories of voyages to distant lands aren’t in the awe-inspiring monuments or the natural beauty of their landscape. What remains etched in memory, stirring emotions back home are the unexpected inspirations we prize from people we meet along the journey. They are the ones who add that personal dash of colour to our palette and leave their indelible signature on our travel canvas.
“Madame, I hope you will never become an armchair traveller that you can only take a virtual trip online.” Those were Mr G’s parting words as we bid her a safe journey home.
I often think of l’américaine with a dose of melancholy. I hope she never grows ill that she is housebound, unable to spread her wings and enjoy her passions in the spirit she and her husband had lived.
2 rue Cambon 75001 Paris
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