Friday, September 15, 2006

I Retreat from the Current Unpleasantness with a Memory of: Paris

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Hemingway Lived in Paris, I Just Remembered

When I read Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" back there in high school, I was much impressed by the idea of sex that "made the earth move" -- a phrase that considerably oversells the virtue of having sex on the cold hard ground -- and the insult, "I obscenity in your mother's milk."

I have spent my whole life trying to escape a tendency to read everything in the most literal way. At 16, I naturally assumed that turn of phrase was the literal insult: I OBSCENITY in your mother's milk. Yeah!

I thought perhaps Spanish Republicans were naturally delicate in their expressions or had a rhetorical preference for indirection -- how did I know? I just know I thought it was a very elegant kind of insult, richly vague, leaving the nature of the defilement to the robust imagination, of which I had one.

Don't recall when I finally got the fact this was just Hemingway placating the censors, a simple euphemism that everyone else immediately decoded. It spoiled the insult, it really did.

I am thinking about this because of the bottle of wine my wife and I drank when we were -- I probably haven't mentioned this -- IN PARIS LAST WEEK. Eydie read in one of her food magazines about the Jules Verne restaurant, which is located about a third of the way up the Eiffel Tower, right inside it, wouldn't kid, shouldn't kid, couldn't kid you.

Three months ahead we reserved for lunch. I will not talk about the view. I need not, since you will see at least one splendid picture when we have the slide show to which you all are invited, though may I suggest you reserve early, since the midnight show can be a little raucous and the snacks damp.

The three-course pris fixe meal (52 Euro; $64.06 Yankee) was delicious, and the waiters came at us in waves, fawning and tres gentil -- perhaps I do look like the diseased Jerry Lewis -- BUT BUT BUT the sommelier, oh the sommelier.

I have a theory about myself among the Parisians. This theory arose not exactly because a series of events occurred while I was in Paris that demanded a unifying idea or at least a hypothesis but because I wanted to be able to say, "I have a theory about myself among the Parisians." That strikes me as an elegant thing to say, pompous perhaps, but it gets the point across that I HAVE BEEN IN PARIS. First came the idea of having a theory and then came the actual theory. First the vessel and then the content. You get it.

Again: I have a theory about myself among the Parisians. It is that while I am in Paris, each day someone will cheat me to one degree or another and each day I will embarrass myself to one degree or another.

So, we are at one of view tables in the Jules Verne restaurant located in the Eiffel Tower looking down on Paris. The waiters have been solicitous. The sommelier approaches. He says something. I panic. I blurt out, "I don't speak French."

My wife says, "That wasn't French."

Abashed, I stare at my plate and mutter, "I guess I don't speak English either."

I look up. The expression on the sommelier's face! He thinks I have said that he does not speak English.

Zut! Alors!

I attempt to reconcile with the sommelier. We are having a fishy dish and a vealish dish. I throw myself into the sommelier's capable hands: A red? A white certainly?? I wave my hand over a list of suggested wines.

"That!" he says, pointing.

I wonder -- "Red, white...?" He shrugs.

The wine arrives. It is red, somewhat fierce, perhaps of a depilatory nature. It meets the food, wrestles the food to the ground, kicks the food in the ribs.

Ah, some of the legendary French rudeness?

I can only hope that I am worthy of the legendary French rudeness. Into my mother's milk pours the legendary obscenity of the kind that can happen only -- and did I mention that this was happening...

Was it Marseilles? Might have it been in sunny Provence? The moment had a hyphenated feel. Perhaps Alsace-Lorraine?

I think not. I believe it was -- sometimes memory she plays you the trick. I am almost certain it was ....

In ParisParisParisParisParisParis.

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