Monday, April 11, 2011

Paris dining encounters and where they lead us . . .

lunchtime on the way to Montmartre
Although our French occasionally meets with some puzzlement or amusement, even a gentle correction or brief pronunciation/grammar lesson, generally it's quite serviceable. One of its best benefits is to get us into small neighbourhood restaurants ordering our meals from the ardoise or the only-in-French menu, sitting very close to our dining neighbours. Parisiens are very good at maintaining their boundaries even as we bump elbows, but they're also often very good at engaging in just the right amount of chat to make these meals enjoyable with no awkwardness about subsequently retiring to one's own table. Over the years, we've racked up a number of these encounters and happily remind each other about the charming elderly couple we chatted with several years ago in L'Avant-Goût who reminisced about their early years in Italy  . . . or the late 60-ish widow, Parisian for several generations but married into an East Coast American family, commuting regularly between both homes, who talked politics with us not long after Bush was re-elected.
sunlight projection of stained glass colours on floor of St. Pierre-de-Montmartre
The other evening, at Au Pied du Fouet again so that Pater could have his own plateful of the chicken livers he'd sampled from my lunch earlier in the week, we were invited into a most delightful conversation with two beautifully dressed women -- one about my age, one in her 80s. Obviously alerted to our travelers' status by our accents, they were most impressed that we had found our way to this tiny spot, otherwise filled with Parisians. They approved of our order, commenting that foies de volaille was very French, while they rhapsodized with each other about the quality and quantity of their beef, cooked perfectly sanglant. Despite the older woman, a third-generation Parisienne, having lived in the neighbourhood for decades, they had never eaten here before, but pronounced it very French, very good, and also très bon marché (good value for the price). We shared amusement at the close-to-frenetic yet efficient service, at how many diners were being fed at the 16 crowded, red-checkered tabletops. We noted the cloth napkins tucked away in their cubbyholes on the end wall for the regulars to pick up each visit, and we wondered at the server's ability to navigate the narrow curving stairs to the upper dining area.
stained glass window with fishy details, St. Pierre de Montmartre
But we mostly talked about Paris, first pausing briefly at Canada, by way of Montreal which the older woman had lived in for eight months while her neuro-surgeon husband did a stint at McGill quite a few decades ago. She was well-educated as well, a lecturer long retired, but still passionate about architectural history. Beautiful skin, subtly made up, with her blonde-grey hair stylishly coiffed, pearls complementing her shell-pink grosgrain-trimmed sweater and cream bouclé skirt, she would still command attention should she return to the lectern. Although she deplored the tiny delays in memory that slowed her down, she quickly established what we needed to see, quizzing us first on what we knew of Paris' sites. Then she chose three churches she insisted we should not miss, and she begged pen and paper to write down some notes for us. Happily, I had my Paris-dedicated Moleskine with me and my favourite hand-turned wooden pen -- thus I have a lovely record of that evening in her classic French hand. While we never exchanged names (and never, in these dining conversations, have we done so -- it would seem, I think, a breach of the boundary-preserving protocols), her instructions will add another thread into the tapestry that is our Paris.
Vitrail, St. Pierre de Montmartre, nautical detail
A Christening here on a sunny day would feel additionally blessed.
And yes, we have been following these instructions, the first set of which took us up to Montmartre on Friday, not to see Sacre Coeur but rather to visit the much humbler, much older St. Pierre, right next to it. As our retired lecturer told us, this church holds some evidence of its earlier use as a temple to Mars (whose name lives on in Montmartre). Although its history includes 9th-century pilgrims, 12th-century renovations and reconsecrations, 17th-century destructions, and, very significantly its role at the inception of the Jesuits, Pater and I were most taken with the beautiful windows, exactly the same vintage as me. It doesn't take long to notice that the borders on most of the windows feature intertwined fish, reflecting Peter's original career choice. The windows also feature nets, boats, sails along with keys to the kingdom and buildings on rocks. They require a basic knowledge of the New Testament to decipher, but none at all to appreciate their beauty, especially on a sunny day.
We had spent an hour or so wandering just below Montmartre our first weekend here and likely wouldn't have returned, especially since it gets so crowded on sunny days. Prompted by our new instructions, though, we made the trek up the hill, past the crowds eating mediocre food at tourist trap restaurants. How could we be grumpy, though, when new blooms were blossoming every minute, young people were happily singing along with the busker, all Paris laid out at their feet, and Sacre Coeur reflecting the sun in all its overstated glory.  We by-passed the crowds to slip into St. Pierre's tranquil cool and fragrant darkness, meditating on its centuries of worship, before wandering past the nearby vineyard. I'll post more pictures of a magical day that added to our Paris repertoire.
So to our dining companions in Paris who have so enriched our visits, not just this past week, but each time we visit, thank you so much. You disprove, over and over again, all those clichés about rude and/or unfriendly Parisiens. Instead, you show us a city which inspires a passion and a fierce desire that it be properly appreciated -- we try our best to follow your lead!


  1. I marvel at how elegantly and heartfelt each installment of your posts are written. Were you and Pater conversing in English or French with the ladies you sat near? Sitting in close proximity to other diners is almost always engaging for me. I love to try and strike up a conversation and I almost always succeed!

  2. Oh, what beautiful stained glass!! And the patterns on the floor, almost magical in appearance.

    When in Paris, we've occassionally fallen into casual conversation with those seated at the next table, and have always found people to be reserved but friendly, not at all rude (despite, probably our own inadvertent faux pas and mangling of the language). And your right, introductions are never made. Parisians are very proud of their city, and eager to share their favorite bits, a blessing for visitors.

  3. What I miss most about Paris cafes is the wonderful low murmur of conversation, animated, but not at all loud given the number of people.

    I love the nautical details in the first window and the floor reflection of the second. I've never heard of that church and look forward to a future visit.

  4. In Cyprus most random conversations begin with "where are you from?" From there the conversation will then invariable throw up a link or relative in common. I guess there are more than 3 degree's of separation in Paris though!
    Despite the hideous tourist nature of Montmartre I will forever see it through Utrillo's eyes and always gravitate there during any visit.
    The smaller churches are always best and your find is particularly beautiful. I have a photograph of Kitty eating one of her most memorable meals in a tiny cafe at the foot of the hill called Cafe Botek, yet when I ask if she wants to return it is always a "no", sad to say no one in my family has been bitten by the Paris bug.

  5. Sanglant! A Freudian slip perhaps?

  6. My last trip to Paris, my best friend and I got kicked outside because we dawdled at our table. Serendipitously, we sat next to a fascinating couple. She was part of a French ministry, a Tunisian who had moved to Paris. We laughed and drank and wound up buying their dinner, just to leave a good impression of Americans. So much fun. Your lovely thoughtful post reminded me of great happiness.

  7. Marguerite: We spoke mostly in French, although both could speak English fairly well.
    Pseu: You're echoing our experience exactly -- although once we get outside the city into the rest of France, as now, we're always struck by how much more time is available for chatting.
    Susan: I was just remarking to Paul that I really like the acoustics in restaurants here -- they do manage to create that happy buzz that's nonetheless not too loud to be distracting.
    Alison: Here, as well, people seem quite pre-occupied by the notion of one's origin: Vous êtes dóù? is perhaps the most common question we here -- and we generally get warm responses when we say we're from Canada.
    Lesley: If it is, my French isn't up to picking it up -- could you help me out?
    Lisa: Ah! One of those memorable evenings that resonates so many years later -- wonderful! Thanks for sharing it!

  8. Magical! Down with flu, your post is a bright spot.


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