How to consternate your French waitress

Risotto - and the glasses in questionSo I grew up not with wine or mineral water in crystal stemware but whole milk with dinner. Probably in a plastic cup and maybe when I got older in one of those glasses you can get at Arby’s at Christmas time.

Now I drink wine with dinner but from an all-purpose glass from Pottery Barn or Target. I’ve never bothered to learn table settings. But I have a dread of looking like a bumbling American tourist in France so I try to scope out nearby tables to answer questiosn of cutlery or glasses.

Last Wednesday night in Paris we had dinner at the Restaurant du Palais Royale. It was quite posh and elegant, with whimsical black and white silk throw pillows along the banquet seating which threw me – what do I do with them? Lean on them? No, that puts me too close to the table. I just put them to the side.

In still clean clothes - and my scarf! Then came the ordering trials. I’d been practicing my French all week in Normandy but this waitress immediately presented me with an English menu. I hadn’t said anything to her – how did she know? I even had on my silk neck scarf. What gave away my non Fenchness? Well whatever it was soon became even more apparent.

I ordered a carafe of water along with a half bottle of white wine (this is not an inexpensive restaurant and they had no carafes of house wine). The water pitcher came out before the wine. I was thirsty. I was faced with two glass options. The French take their table settings seriously so I gave serious consideration to which glass to use but frankly didn’t have a clue.  I glanced around nearby tables but the glasses were similar in size and shape and in the dim candle-lit room I couldn’t tell. So I randomly chose a glass.

Back comes our chic and sophisticated waitress with the wine. She stopped short, aghast at what she saw. She looked at me, brow furrowed, head cocked. She looked at the glasses, at the water pitcher and at the wine in her hand. Her brows raised higher and higher. I got the hint. Je suis desolee, I said, shrugging, je ne sais pas. (I’m sorry, I don’t know [my French isn’t good enough for I “didn’t” know]). Her expression softened, “It’s OK,” she allowed, smiling a little.

She then removed the offending glasses of water and empty glasses and returned with a pristine set to replace them, and poured our wine and water into the proper glasses.

Maybe all would have been well but when our starters arrived (a chilled tomato soup with creme fraiche for me and an eggplant, tomato and goat cheese concoction for Brian) I had to taste his. As the fully loaded fork traveled from plate to eagerly waiting mouth I lost half the load. The tomato landed on my white blouse and the goat cheese on my black trousers.

I had to then swallow my pride and ask the waitress for help. She sighed sadly and brought me a leaning wipe which essentially just smeared the tomato around the white shirt.

I was quite proud to have no mishaps with my risotto vert et vert et vert (risotto with peas, green beans and spinach) and informed her of such, looking for a twinge of humor but got a pitying smile instead.

Ah, the joys of dining in Paris. Actually that was as bad as it got. I’ll report later on the wonderful meal experiences we had the rest of the week.


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