Thursday lunch saw me sitting with two colleagues at a sidewalk café not far from the office. It was a mild and sunny Spring day, cool enough still for me to not mind sitting outside in the full sun without a parasol in sight.
If it sounds like an ideal of April in Paris, let me share one detail: we were seated outside an English pub and I was sipping a pint of Kilkenny, waiting to be served les hamburgers. When I had ordered the Kilkenny, my English waitress understood that I'd ordered a Coke, and my French colleagues barely stifled their laughter.
I discovered rapidly that I can no longer down an entire pint in one sitting, and the three-fourths I did finish over the course of the meal made my head spin. When our burgers arrived, I watched one of my colleagues meticulously dismantle his and eat it with a knife and fork. The other one followed my lead and, smearing ketchup from a plastic packet, grabbed it with both hands and chomped. I asked him if he always ate his burgers like that, or if it was just for my benefit. He claimed he'd learned at McDonalds. In a nod to French decorum, I ate my fries with my fork.
That evening, I met my sister-in-law for dinner at a bistro not far from the Arc de Triomphe. We are both American, though we've both been living in France for years now, and we were naturally speaking English together as we walked in the door. The waitress had to concentrate to understand me when I gave the name of our reservation in French, and I noted with dismay that she handed us English menus. After six years as a presque Parisian, I always feel a bit deflated when I don't get the menu in French.
When she came to take our order and I addressed her in my best, clearest French, she wrinkled her forehead and apologized with a perfect Californian accent, "Actually, I prefer English." She was an American student working a waitressing gig during a year off from college.
I ordered an entrecôte and was served a steak of American proportions that almost hung off the sides of the plate. I attacked it with purpose while at the same time wondering how prudent it was after the burger at lunch. I still only finished half.
(My excuse: my husband has been dieting for the past two months and has lost over 20 pounds. I'm very proud of him, but I also find myself dieting by association, since we prepare light and mostly vegetarian meals at home. On my girls' night out I was trying to make up for this and went overboard slightly.)
The (French) waiter came by to take my plate away and I looked at him imploringly. "I know this isn't done,*" I said in French, "but is there any way I might be able to take the rest of this steak with me..."
"Ah, you want ze doggy bag!" he said. I nodded, embarrassed. He whisked away my plate and came back with an aluminum container wrapped in plastic.
"How about dessert?" he asked with a smile. "Bien sûr !" we agreed. As he handed us back the menu he added mockingly, "Will this be for here or for takeaway?"
[* "Ca ne se fait pas:" what is and isn't done is a very important concept in France. Sometimes just demonstrating that you know that something isn't normally done wins you a lot of room for bending the rules: in my experience, the only thing the French like more than making rules is breaking them.]