A Gaul-ing time in Paris

You know when you’re standing in front of the mirror issuing toe-curling put-downs to your reflection but wishing you’d actually thought of them during the argument you’ve just lost? It happens to me all the time. And last weekend, all that practice finally paid off when I found myself giving icily cool ripostes (in French!) to a particularly stereotypical maitre d’ in a Parisian bistro.

I was heartily looking forward to my trip to Paris with the Spaniard, imagining long, romantic walks punctuated by rummages in bobo bric-a-brac boutiques, and topped off with hefty, rewarding meals. I didn’t yet know that we’d chosen the coldest weekend of the year to visit one of the most overpriced capitals in the world and would return to London with dry, scaly cheeks bitten raw by the arctic wind, an empty wallet, and a firm resolve never to return. So I did some research, bought the guides, made hit lists of good restaurants and booked them in advance in my best French.

On our first night in the city, we draped ourselves in thermal vests, polo necks and thick coats and scarves and braved the plummeting temperatures to walk across town to Itinéraires. As requested when I booked, I’d called back earlier that day to confirm my reservation, but had had to leave a message because no one was answering the phone.

After a half-hour walk we arrived bang on time and pushed at the door with numb fingers. Once inside, the trouble began. The head waiter cocked his head, looked us up and down and enquired, ‘Messieurdames?

‘Hello. We’ve got a reservation.’

‘Ah oui?’ He gave the booking list the briefest of glances. ‘Mais non madame, you didn’t call back, so we had to let your reservation go.’ He crinkled his eyes and drew his lips back to reveal his teeth. ‘Je suis désolé.’

I tried to reason politely: yes, I’d called several times to confirm but nobody answered; I’d left a message on the answering machine.

Ouais, but without a confirmation, we cannot keep your reservation.’

‘Well,’ I answered, ‘since we are here, are you able to you fit us in anywhere?’

Before he could answer, the head waiter’s attention was diverted by the arrival of another young couple, this time French. He hurried over to greet them. I listened as he took their name and checked for their reservation, while they explained that they hadn’t managed to speak to anyone at the restaurant when they called to confirm either. But what was this? Pas de problème! They were being found a spot at the bar!

Without missing a beat, the maitre d’ returned to us and gave another poisonous smile. ‘I’m sorry but there’s nothing we can do. We are full.’

‘But you’ve just found space for that couple!’ I protested.

Oui, but they booked more recently than you.’

‘In that case our booking should have taken precedence!’

Non madame. There’s nothing we can do. Je suis désolé.’

Well, what can I say? The national anthem began to buzz in my head. My heart stirred at the thought of England’s green and pleasant land. I remembered Waterloo. And I made a decision then and there not to go anywhere without making my point. A Scene, it seemed, would have to be made. So I gave it to our self-elected nemesis loudly, and with both barrels.

Vous n’êtes pas désolé!’ I said clearly. ‘You tell me I didn’t call when I did.’

‘Ah, but you didn’t speak to anyone.’

‘But you didn’t say that – you told me I didn’t call. I did call and I left a message. It’s not my fault if your answering machine is inutile. You found somewhere to sit for a couple who booked after us but you tell us we have to leave. I think the way you’ve treated us is très fort.’

At this he raised a mocking eyebrow. ‘Très fort?’

‘Yes,’ I said firmly. ‘Very strong.’

‘Pah!’ spat the maitre d’ with a flick of the wrist. And with that, like a pantomime baddie, off he stalked.

I waited, stiff upper lip in place as I fumed with outrage. When he returned, it was to brandish an index finger in my face and to shout in English, ‘I geeve you ONE hour!’

Non merci,’ I replied primly.

At this point I may or may not have made reference to the fact that Itinéraires had been recommended to me by influential friends in the restaurant industry. I stood haughtily in the middle of the restaurant as a hasty conference was held among the waiting staff. Next, a concerned waitress was despatched to assess the damage. She phoned their sister restaurant to see whether they could squeeze us in at short notice. She pointed out acceptable restaurants close by. I smiled bravely and told her that we would find somewhere ourselves; it was just a shame that my colleagues had spoken so highly of this restaurant and I had been treated so rudely. I was honour bound to tell them what had occurred.

And with that I served them all with my best Gallic shrug and swept out (the Spaniard had long since slunk outside in embarrassment). We strode along the freezing, deserted boulevards, me congratulating myself on my poise, marvelling at my resurgent French, and punching the air every so often in jubilant triumph. Empty triumph, certainly, since we were still in search of shelter and a warm meal and much, much hungrier than before, but triumph nonetheless.

I’d like to tell you that things improved dramatically after that. But no, mes amis, it was definitely the high point of our stay and an event we came to reminisce about fondly in the days to come, as we sat with the other tourists in overpriced bistros, or shelled out €4.80 for a coffee in a backstreet café, or tried to regain the feeling in our fingers and toes, or shivered in gastro-enteritic fever, or counted the minutes until our Eurostar departure.

So, I’ll never sample the food in Itinéraires – and I suggest none of you bother to attempt it either. But as far as I’m concerned, I win. 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2 responses to “A Gaul-ing time in Paris

  1. haha – I LOVE that you wrote about this! Was it your highlight of 2010 😉

    • neverknowinglyunderfed

      Ha ha ha – it would be in the top ten! He’ll be sorry when I’m a famous restaurant critic…although the revenge I serve will be VERY cold by then! x

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