GUS’ TRAVELS | Je Ne Comprends Pas

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By Gus Jarvis | Montrose

It seemed a pleasant enough conversation to overhear on a Monday morning.

“Morning.”

“Good morning,” the short, squat woman replied to the man as he took a seat next to her.

Besides those two, I was the only other one in attendance so far for the regular meeting of the Montrose Board of County Commissioners. We were 15 minutes early for the meeting so small talk ensued.

“So how have you been?” The slender man dressed in a navy sport coat asked.

“Oh, I’ve been great. How about you? What have you been up to?”

“Well, my wife and I just got back from Paris,” the man answered, excited to tell his tale of travel abroad. “We spent a week traveling around the French countryside and then a week in Paris. I have to say it was absolutely wonderful. The food. The wine. The culture. I had no idea I would like it so much. My wife fell in love with France too. Have you even been?”

He was eager to find common ground with someone who had a common travel experience there. He went to the wrong person. With nostrils flaring crusted snot, hackles rising up on her grey-haired neck, veins popping out of her yellow eyeballs and a noticeable rise in her heart rate, she replied emphatically.

“I would NEVER set foot in that country in my life. That place absolutely disgusts me!”

Her unexpected reply caused me to spit half my coffee on my laptop. The poor man said nothing more and stared straight ahead. The conversation, which began as innocent Monday morning small talk, was over. Fini.

What caused her reaction? We will never truly know because neither one of us wanted to ask. But knowing her right-wing conservative affiliation and weekly rants at government meetings, France, I am assuming, with her perceived Socialist ways, is part an axis of evil. She was one of those “freedom fries” activists I’m sure.

Her statement made me laugh, though, because all my life I’ve been trying to step foot into France. In middle school I hosted a French foreign exchange student for a summer. I took four years of French in high school. I dreamed of tasting sole meunière. This woman’s number one nightmare would be seeing the Eiffel Tower in person. For me, it’s been a dream.

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C+ TO SUCCESS

Unfortunately, I was reminded of my “freedom fries” friend several times as we travelled through France last September. The first instance came as we visited the Basque costal town of Biarritz in southwestern France.

Me being the best French speaker out of the four travelling together thanks to my four C+ years of high school French (Merci Madame Swanson!), it was up to me to speak to the man operating the quaint hotel we’d booked two rooms in about an hour prior to our arrival.

“Bonjour…ehhh…Nous avon…ehhh…un reservation.”

I’m pretty sure Madame Swanson wouldn’t have been too impressed.

The hotelier smiled and stopped me.

“I speak English. Carry on.”

I guess he wasn’t too impressed with my French either. But as it turns out, my French was enough to unlock his generosity. Besides giving us a couple of old school, rustic rooms; a bunch of recommendations for food and drink (the best moules-frites, fried sardines, octopus salad); and a few pronunciations of French verbs; he also gave us some advice for our travels through the rest of the countryside and into Paris.

“Always try to speak a little French if you can. Even if it’s just, ‘Bonjour.’”

The hotelier, who actually grew up in England and spoke perfect English, had a great sense of humor and a knack for telling good stories. He recalled a time when an American, a Texan to be specific, needed a room but lacked any courtesy upon asking for one.

“So it’s got to be at least 8 p.m. or so on maybe a Tuesday,” he explained while standing at the small, dimly lit lobby. “It was the offseason and the kind of night nobody was out looking for a room. I was half asleep already.

“And then, breaking the silence of the night, there was this loud BANG, BANG, BANG on the front door. Startled, I then thought to myself, ‘Shit. Did I lock the door already?”

“BANG, BANG, BANG. And again. BANG, BANG, BANG. It was loud and really obnoxious. I quickly opened the unlocked door before this grizzled man standing before me could knock again.

“Bonsoir,” I said, wondering what the hell this guy wanted.

“I need a room,” the man, wearing a faded Longhorns T-shirt, demanded. “I need a room,” he repeated as if I didn’t hear him. At this point, I’d lost all ability to speak any bit of English.

“Que?” I said.

“I need a room. This is a hotel right? Well, I need a room.”

“Je ne comprends pas.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“Je ne parle pas Anglais.” I gave him a look of complete and utter confusion. He gave me a look like his head was going to explode.

“‘I can’t believe this,” he said as he turned around in anger, walking toward the curb where his car was parked. “Unbelievable.”

By the time he reached his car, I found my ability to speak English.

“‘Excuse me, I do have two rooms available if you need a room,” I yelled to him. He stopped dead in his tracks and turned around very slowly, realizing I’d known English this whole time and was messing with him. I thought for one moment he was going to come and punch me in the gut. Actually, I was ready for him to do so.

‘“You mean to tell me you understood me that whole time? Son of a bitch. You are the most rude hotel operator ever. What the hell do you think you are trying to prove?”

“‘I’m simply trying to help you realize that you are in fact traveling in a different country and that a little courtesy and a little effort in speaking the local language will go a long way. You just can’t demand everything in English without a little courtesy.”

He was still steaming, not really comprehending what I was saying.

“‘I don’t speak French,” he said.

“‘I’m sure you know the word Bonjour,” I said.

“‘Yeah.”

“‘It’s probably a good idea to go at least that far. It’s one word and it will make all the difference in the world to the people you are talking to. It’s my advice to you.”

While the angry Texan did take a room for the night, the hotelier didn’t think he took his advice to heart and is probably standing in a hotel lobby now, somewhere deep in Norway, demanding a room in accentuated Southernese.

I wondered how my freedom fries friend back in Montrose would have done with this guy?

The story made me feel better about my terrible French. I’d blown right past the “Bonjour” part, that was no problem, and I was trying to figure out the verb conjugation for “we have” when I met this guy in the lobby. His story was not only funny but one that gave me encouragement to bumble even further with my C+ French language skills throughout our trip.

It was a few days later in our trip that the man’s story really hit home.

Sure, it was kind of hard to believe that an American would walk into a hotel on the coast of France and start demanding things in English. Or maybe it’s not too hard to believe when I think about it further? Either way, we pretty much met that same demanding Texan at a car rental agency in Bordeaux.

On a bright and clear morning, we had a train to catch to Paris and the four of us travellers were patiently waiting to return the keys to our rental car. Like any car rental agency, the line was long and slow moving. Fortunately for us, all we had to do is hand in the keys to our car and get on our way. Unfortunately for us, we still had to wait in line with all the people who were picking cars up.

And like most long-line situations that test your patience, you begin eavesdropping on conversations, especially those conversations that are keeping the line from progressing. First there were four American men arguing with each other on who was going to drive on what day of their trip. They needed to make sure everyone who was expected to drive was on the car rental’s insurance to drive. It was a longwinded, but nonetheless entertaining conversation to say the least.

Just as their conversation with the agent was buttoned up and the line was about to move forward, a frantic middle-aged man stomped through the door and cut right to the front of the line. He slammed a set of car keys on the counter just in front of the gorgeous dark-haired agent.

“Um…Yeah…We were just in here an hour ago and rented a car. My wife and I thought we would remember how to drive a stick shift but it’s not coming back to us,” he said.

My guess was Missouri accent. Maybe even Arkansas. His accent definitely had some backwoods Ozarks flavor to it. He had four thick gold rings on his fat sausage fingers. “We made it a few miles in that direction and decided to stop the car. It wasn’t working right. So, I’m going to need a different car right now, an automatic, so I can go pick my wife up. She’s very upset. You are going to have to get one of your boys to go and pick the damn car up.”

“Boys?” I thought.

Once again no, “Bonjour.” Just demands.

The car rental agent was cool as ice. She showed no surprise and acted as if she’d heard these same demands before. Her reply was priceless.

“Je ne comprends pas.”

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DINNER FOR TWO (AND MORE)

When I think back to our time in France, there are, as you might imagine, plenty of highlights that stick out.

With centuries-old cathedrals dotting the horizon of rolling hills of grapes, our travels through the Bordeaux region always comes to mind. Waiting in line to buy head cheese for a picnic at the Eiffel Tower is another. The echoing sounds of a Wednesday evening mass inside Notre Dame still gives me chicken skin. The beautiful Tricolour blowing in the breeze below the grand archway of the Arc de Triomphe does the same. The smell of a freshly baked baguette in the morning brings tears to my eyes (mainly because there’s nothing even remotely close available here in Wonder Bread Montrose.)

There are hundreds of memories I like to recall when I think back on our trip to France. There is, however, one memory that tops all: Dinner at Restaurant Chez Georges.

Up until this point in our trip, when it came to finding places to eat, the four of us travelers would usually be buried nose down in our smartphones looking for any sort of restaurant reviews from Yelp, Google and the like. And for the most part, the reviews would point you somewhat in the right direction. At the same time, it made deciding where to dine even harder. Technology can be burdensome.

On this evening, the two couples were going separate ways. It would just be my lovely wife and I together in search for some classic French dining.

“There’s two places within walking distance that look pretty good on Yelp,” Torie said, looking down at her phone, then handing it to me. “What do you think?”

For some reason, I was tired of reviews.

“Let’s just go for a walk and find a place that looks good.”

“You sure? We’re only in Paris for four days. We don’t want to screw it up by wasting time at a place that’s just OK, right?” Torie said.

“We’ll find a place. I think even the bad restaurants in Paris will knock our socks off.”

“Sounds good to me,” she said and off we went into the night.

With nearly a full moon above, we walked the dark streets of Paris in a random direction. The narrow streets, busy and full of sidewalk cafes around some corners while dark and quiet around others, were a twisting maze. We found ourselves in a sort of Chinatown, full of Asian restaurants. Both of us agreed Asian wasn’t on our menu that evening. We kept wandering, checking menus as we went. So far, nothing had struck us.

We finally came upon a brasserie that looked promising. It was plenty busy, had a menu that looked enticing to both of us (I was eyeing the mussels once again).

“Let’s walk two more blocks,” Torie suggested.

“What’s wrong with this place?”

“Nothing. It looks great. But lets walk just a little further.”

In my mind, my idea to go sans Yelp review was backfiring. Now our indecision was going to keep us from making any sort of selection in a reasonable amount of time.

“Do you know if there’s more in two more blocks?” I complained.

“No. I just want to walk further. If we don’t find anything, we’ll come back here. Sound good?”

“Sure,” I said, knowing full well we’d be coming right back to that brasserie.

At the end of our two blocks, I was close to turning back, when Torie said, “What about this place?”

Restaurant Chez Georges, with thin curtains covering its windows, didn’t look promising.

“It looks closed,” I said.

“The menu says its open.”

The menu, displayed in a small window with several bottles of wine, was scrawled in blue and pink ink. Faded by the sun, it looked like it had been there a while. While hard for my English language eyes to read, the menu was extensive.

It was at our point of indecision of should we stay or should we go, a tall woman walked out and without pause gave us the review we needed.

“Have you been here before?”

“No,” Torie said. “We just walked up on it.”

“This is the place you want to go. Try the mushroom appetizer tonight. It’s really good.”

“Thank you so much,” Torie said.

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In we went.

The dining room was long and narrow. Mirrors covered most of the walls. Brass ornamented the place. Uniformed wait staff, which seemed like a lot of them, hustled in and out of tables, pouring bottles of wine and taking orders. The place was brightly lit and joyfully loud. It was also damn busy. Would a place this, for lack of a better word, fancy, have an open table without reservations?

“Good evening,” the host said, going straight to English upon seeing us. “Do you have a reservation?”

“No, unfortunately,” I said.

“Perfect,” he said with a sly grin. “Just the kind we like. Follow me.”

On the left side of the narrow and long dining room is one long row of tables, end-to-end. All of the white cloth covered tables were occupied. All but one, which had two vacancies smack dab in the center of the long row. In order to sit at the table, one of the waiters pulls the table out for one of us, Torie in this instance, to sit inside on a long bench. The waiter then pushes the table back into the row, essentially locking the guest into place. And then I sit across from Torie, elbow to elbow with strangers on both sides.

For us Americans, this is an uncomfortable prospect. We like booths. Name the last time you went to a restaurant and when the host/hostess offers a table or a both and a table is selected? No, we like booths. We like to hover over our fried seafood platter in private without strangers watching us cram our faces with hush puppies and ketchup.

So to say that I was a little uncomfortable with our seating, at least at first, is an honest statement. Not the smallest guy in the world, weighing in at 260 with broad shoulders I sat with my hands in my lap, trying to keep my elbows in as we ordered a bottle of wine.

To my right sat a middle-aged man in a blue blazer. I was trying not to rub elbows with his date sitting directly next to me. To my left was a table of four men in their mid-50s passing a bottle of wine around and all speaking at each other at the same time. They looked like former soccer mates out for a night on the town.

With a half bottle of wine down, Torie and I began to loosen up and feel at least a little more comfortable. The gal from outside was indeed correct in that the mushroom starter was damn good. Very simple. Thick, meaty mushrooms sautéed in butter with herbs and just the right amount of salt. Torie ordered the foie gras to start, which, as it turned out, was as thick and heavy as a sidewalk paving stone. Almost too much richness to start with, yet it was impossible to stop eating. Getting that luxurious liver down called for another bottle of red.

Soon the conversation picked up between us and the parties on both sides of the table. The gentleman to my right, it turns out, knows a Colorado congresswoman very well – a congresswoman that Torie works with regularly. One of those small world instances that seems hard to fathom.

Both the man and lovely date (Torie and I saw no wedding ring, so we assumed date) carried the conversation with us over topics of food, what to do in Paris, and American politics. Why not? The wine was flowing.

“I’ve got to use the restroom,” Torie whispered.

“Can’t you hold it? I mean, we have to move this table out to let you out. I feel like we’ll disturb everyone on both sides of us.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll let you out. It’s no big deal.”

It was one of the guys sitting next to me on the left.

“This is how we do it here,” he said, smiling and helping to move our table out.

Upon Torie’s return, our conversation shifted from the right side of the table with the couple, the left side of the table with the four men. As it turns out, all for of them are from different European countries but have all worked together and known each other in Paris for the past 30 years.

Over another bottle of red, we talked about their work, the weather, France’s chance in the Rugby World Cup, and yes, American politics. It seems everyone is in awe of the U.S. political system. And I don’t mean awe in any sort of positive way.

As his table passed around a gigantic bowl of salad, one of them asked us how we found that particular restaurant.

“How did you find this place?”

“We just walked up and found it. I guess we are lucky,” I said.

“The four of us, we work right up the street there,” he said. “We’ve been coming here for years. There’s not too many places like this left in Paris. You are lucky indeed.”

We felt damn lucky to be there and we hadn’t even had our meal yet.

Just as that thought sunk in, our food arrived. Torie went with the red meat and ordered steak frites. Somehow they take two simple dinner staples and make them better. The best, in fact. I ordered the sweetbreads in a light cream sauce with morel mushrooms. The sweetbreads were tender and rich. The morels brought liveliness to the cream sauce that almost brought tears to my eyes. Seriously. Can a cream sauce bring tears to one’s eyes?

I was contemplating that when the gentleman sitting to my left asked me a question.

“How did you know to order that?”

“There’s not too many places in the U.S. where you can get sweetbreads. So I figured I better try what I can’t get,” I said.

“Well, those sweetbreads are the best in all of Paris. I mean that. I’ve tried them everywhere. Nowhere has that dish like they have it here,” he said in excitement. “The only problem is they used to serve it with steamed potatoes. That really finished the dish off.”

“Oh, I bet that was good,” I said. Before I could finish that sentence, the man had snapped his fingers, yelled to the waitress across the room and before my next bite, I had a side of steamed potatoes. He was spot on. They were the perfect side to a perfect dish. And once again, I realized that somehow the chef at this place had perfected a simple dinner staple. The potatoes, peeled whole, where perfectly soft, creamy and seasoned with butter and parsley. I asked myself how in the hell I screw this up so badly when I make them.

The meal continued and the conversation continued. We carried on conversations with the man and his date. We turned for incoming conversation from the table of four on the other side. Those two tables had conversation over our table. It was as convivial an atmosphere as you could have. At the same time, the food was some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Rich as can be. And it was a richness that washed down well with plenty of wine.

Dinner finished with a simple dessert of raspberries and whipped cream. Ethereal in the simplest way. It was sad when we all said goodbye after two-plus hours of eating, drinking and rubbing elbows. From the atmosphere, to the food and drink, to the overall dining experience in relatively tight quarters, it was an experience Torie and I had never had before.

When you are planning a trip to Paris and you read travel sites, books and the like, I’d always thought it was some sort of cliché when one of them would tell you where to go for a classic French bistro experience. I didn’t know what that meant so it never meant anything to me. On this night, the two of us stumbled upon what I think is that classic French bistro experience everyone talks and writes about so fondly.

I now see why it’s so popular.

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WASTED BRAINPOWER

Back home in Montrose, I was walking through Target just the other day picking up a few groceries and was heading to my car in the parking lot when I saw my freedom fries fighter stepping out a gigantic F-350 diesel truck. She was wearing a Christmas sweater that would take top prize in a college ugly sweater contest.

Naturally, her truck was taking up two parking spots, one of which was a wheelchair accessible only spot.

Anyway, seeing her reminded me that my reality was that I was, in fact, back in Montrose. It also reminded me of that early morning conversation she shut down a few months back, particularly her statement, “I would never set foot in that country in my life.”

Knowing what I know about visiting France now – its culture, its food, its history, its beauty, its people, the f-ing classic bistro experience – I wondered if her shallowness or close mindedness could benefit from experiencing the culture of France. Maybe, perhaps, it would open her eyes and make her not so damn angry. Maybe the French could prove to her that they were good and decent people and that they have a way of life worth experiencing? Maybe she just needs to get out more? Maybe the world would be a better place if more people could experience other cultures? Experience things rather than dedicate six to seven hours to Fox News everyday?

And then I thought otherwise.

Maybe some people, like the freedom fries fighter, need to stay home. Maybe they are incapable of experiencing culture or, even, joy? Perhaps, they are better off at home manning their post where they won’t rub their ill will on anyone? I couldn’t imagine her rubbing elbows with the patrons sitting on both sides of her.

“Another bottle of wine?”

“Absolutely not.”

I could hear her asking for a manager because she asked for a booth, not a cramped table with elbows on both sides.

As I watched her wrestle with two shopping carts that were stuck together, I asked myself this question: Why in the hell do I spend so much brainpower thinking about her and her angry ways? Why do I care?

I couldn’t quite find the answer.

Reprinted with gracious permission from the blog of Gus Jarvis, Journalist – Writer – Bloviator at Large – and co-editor of the San Juan Independent.