I'm in Paris. And I'm alone.
It's not romantic. Paris with the one you love is romantic. Paris while you navigate the rain, the class load, the homework, and the metro is challenging and more than a little lonely. I'm one of the new kids here, and while I've made friends, it's hard to step up to a circle and demand to know what we're all doing tonight. I'm not built that way. I'm built for books and Netflix. I'm built for empty movie theaters and empty seats next to me on planes. I'm built for my wife. She is my co-conspirator and without her every experience feels drenched in a demi-glace of melancholy that mingles with the January mist and chills my bones.
JESUS. Chill out, Bennett. Someone's been spending too much time talking imagery and not enough time eating.
And, since I'm in Paris, eating is a must. So I'm taking my stomach on a date. Instead of flowers, I will by my stomach flour. We will take a long walk in the rain to a restaurant void of tourists, and the wine will flow. And, after a date like this, my stomach will totally put out.
Okay, I may have extended that metaphor too far. But, you know, that's why I'm in school. To learn how to not make it sound like I expect my stomach to have sex with me.
Anyway, THE DATE:
Bistrot Paul Bert is a bucket list kind of place. The one thing I had vowed not to miss during these initial 10 days of class. The Louvre is grand (though the Orsay is better) and the evening view from the atop the Arc de Triomphe is like standing in the center of a galaxy. But, for me, you haven't been to Paris till you've had dinner at a classic French Bistro.
Bistros are a Parisian invention. Likely born out of the same concept that would create Bed & Breakfasts, a bistro is all about modesty. Modest food, modest prices, modest decor. A good bistro should feel comfortable, like a living room in a new friend's home, where they don't care about anything but seeing you happy. There is no flash or flare here, there is only the simple, quiet confidence from chefs who know how to cook, from waiters who know how to serve, and from a restaurant that knows all travelers want some place to call home.
I'm trying to get by with only French as much as possible. Trouble is, the French won't let me. I'll start in French, they'll answer in English. Though, they smile when they do. Like a dog chasing its tail, I think they like to see me trying.
But this plan of mine keeps backfiring. Bistrot Paul Bert is ground-zero for this. I arrive (after going into the restaurant next door and insisting I had a reservation) and check-in okay - Neuf Heures, pour une. I even manage to give the correct mangled name I settled for when making the reservation:
"Um, Bennett? B..."
I, Bandy Bennett, was ushered to my table for the loneliest number. The French couple to my right and family to my left shot me bemused glances as I stuffed my bag under my seat as if the restaurant were about to take flight. Once I sat, I understood why. To my left was a coat rack swollen with jackets, hats, umbrellas and bags. The porter pursed his lips, watched me navigate removing my jacket without punching anyone in the face, shrugged, and headed off.
The waiter arrived. He was thin with broad shoulders. Sex hair and a few days worth of stubble on his cheeks. I'm not saying I wanted to fuck my waiter. Just that I know a lot of women who would. I'm saying I want to be my waiter's pimp. It would finally give me an excuse to buy that fur hat.
Feeling tall and fat and draped in an American flag like Apollo Creed, I forged ahead in French:
"Je suis Américain. Je parle terribles Français. Filet de boeuf aux poivre avec frites s'il' vous plait." (I am American. I speak terrible French. Steak with pepper cream sauce and fries, please.)
A brief, French pause.
"Ah! Anthony Bourdain!" he said way too loudly.
True, I had seen that episode of THE LAYOVER. But the waiter was doing a disservice to my research abilities. I had settled on Paul Bert because of Zagat, Time Out Paris, The Guardian, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Paris By Mouth, The Paris Kitchen, Lonely Planet, Andrew Zimmern and, yeah, Anthony Bourdain. Plus, a fellow student in my MFA program told me she had gone there for her birthday and loved it.
And because I didn't want to seem like that kind of tourist, that's what I went with.
"I'm in school and my friend, who lives in Paris, recommended it."
He grinned and tucked away his eye-roll. I felt something unlock between us.
"I take good care of you," he said.
I asked for his recommendation for a starter. Looking at the chalkboard menu, I pointed out the Crispy Pork. He waved it away.
"Something more traditional for you," he said. "Original." He drew the last syllable out with a long Ahhhhhl. He pointed to the Black Pudding Tart with Apples and Rocket. "C'est magnifique," he said.
I nodded, beaming. I let him pick the wine as well.
While I waited, I practiced reading comprehension. On the mirror in front of me, as though left by a one-night-stand who'd had to hurry home, was a message scrawled in white and red:
Foie Gras A Emporter - 110 € p kg
This translates to, Don't order the fucking foie gras.
My starter arrived. It definitely had apples. But that looked like caramel sauce drizzled on the top. And real whipped cream in a ramekin on the side. It looked and smelled like a dessert.
I shrugged and picked up my fork. It was black pudding, after all. Maybe they went heavy on the apples and pudding and less on the black.
Suddenly, the woman at the table with her elderly parents next to me was speaking English.
"Don't eat that," she said. "It's a dessert. They gave you a dessert."
"I thought it was a starter."
Now the couple on the other side of me were speaking English, too.
"That's ours," they said in near-perfect unison.
I set my fork down and shrugged. My face flushed. "I thought I ordered black pudding," I said to anyone who would listen. Which was nobody.
The daughter at the family table began to speak in rapid French to her parents. Then they were laughing, pointing at the dish on my table. I laughed with them.
"Je parle terribles Français," I said again, laughing.
"Oui!" laughed the old man. "C'est bon," he said, clapping me on the back. "C'est bon!"
The daughter flagged down my waiter, gesturing at the plate on my table, the French flying fast and amiable. The waiter rolled his eyes, embarrassed. But not for me. He came over, all apologies, and picked up the plate, moving it to the table next to me.
I loved this waiter. Somehow - amidst all the plates, and wine and silverware - he was also carrying me.
He set down my tart. A delicate spiral of fragile apple slices under a soft pile of arugula dressed shiny with vinaigrette. Through the cracks I could see the rich, dark schmear of black pudding - of sausage and blood.
My first bite was crisp and silky, sweet and meaty, with the sharp snap and tang of the salad on top. Words failed. It was good. Like I'm gonna Google this, look at the recipe, give up and lay in the bath looking at pictures of it, weeping good.
Then it was time for the main event.
A pepper-studded hunk of medium-rare filet, jutting like Everest from a shallow puddle of cream sauce. The surface slightly charred, the inside cool and pink. I sliced off a bite and sailed it through the milky sea, leaving a faint trail of blood in its wake. As I ate, the sauce went from eggshell, to caramel, to a faint, muted rose.
I speared a few fries with my fork, dredging them through the sauce. The thick-cut fries crunched, giving way to what seemed more air than potato. They were meaty, rich with tallow, but somehow not greasy. The meal was a magic trick.
I took another bite of steak. This one without sauce. A sharp snap of pepper first, then a satisfying chew like a bite of warm plum.
I spun the stem of my wine glass against the table like I'd seen fancier people do. I dipped my nose in and took a deep sniff.
Mmmm, yes, I thought. I'm getting hints of wine, plus the lightest note of wine.
I took a slow sip. My cheeks retreated between my cheeks as the wine soaked into and through the meat. It felt primal. Bloody. I imagined myself on a throne made of the bones of my enemies. I felt sorry for vegetarians.
I ate slow. So very slow. I settled to the pace of the French on either side of me and let the meal linger. When it was finally over, my new best friend returned and glanced down at my plate. The steak was gone. So was the sauce. I'd all but licked it clean.
"Oh, it was no good, eh?" he said, smiling.
I smiled back. I wanted a nap.
He lifted the chalkboard menu onto the empty seat across from me. "Something for dessert," he said. It wasn't an option. It was an order.
I pointed at the crème caramel, and he hesitated. I had a moment of regret but he nodded, whisked away the menu and disappeared. I glanced to the family on my left. The daughter who spoke English was selecting from a massive wood slab crowded with oozing cheeses. The elderly mother dipped a spoon into the amber top hat of a soufflé. The elderly father took a bite of his crème caramel, said something dismissive in French and pushed it away.
The crème caramel arrived, and I carved into the edge with my spoon, popping the bite into my mouth. The custard had gone too far toward gelatin. The texture didn't melt so much as it broke down into small cubes in my mouth, like a dessert done by Picasso.
My best friend walked past, cocking an eyebrow at me. I smiled. But my heart wasn't in it. He nodded, knowingly.
I ate a few more bites and felt the disappointment increase. A perfect meal spoiled by an average dessert.
The waiter returned, a glass of wine in one hand, and a soufflé in the other. He set both of them down in front of me and lifted away the crème caramel.
"This is so-so," he said, gesturing to the crème caramel. "This," and now he pointed to the soufflé, "is the specialty. It, and the wine, are my treat."
Man. The French are such aloof assholes. Always speaking English and giving away free wine and desserts to American tourists. What dicks.
It was my first soufflé. I regret the 35 soufflé-less years I've spent on inferior desserts.
I broke through the crust and dug my spoon down deep, pulling up my first bite of an egg dish that defies the laws of gravity. Bubbles standing on bubbles. Climbing, climbing, climbing. It tasted like sugar cookies and rosettes. Like Christmas.
I paid my bill and the waiter shook my hand, telling me, "I wish more tourists were like you." What a line. But it totally worked. I tipped generously.
I grabbed my bag and coat, maneuvered them clear of other diners and headed for the door. Coat half on, one hand on the handle, I took one last look at Bistrot Paul Bert. I thought of how I would make four more trips to Paris over the next two years. Which meant four more trips back here.
Next time, I would bring my wife.
I walked down the wet stone streets toward the metro station. All around me people walked arm in arm, or in small clumps of friends.
I was in Paris. I was alone. But, for the moment, I wasn't lonely.