This summer, for my vacation, I went to Paris, France. I went there to follow in the footsteps of such great writers as Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of whom, for the record, are currently dead.
I blame the Parisian drivers. Paris has only one vacant parking space, which is currently under heavy police guard in the Louvre. This means that thousands of frustrated motorists have been driving around the city since the reign of King Maurice XVII looking for a space, and the way they relieve their frustrations is by aiming at pedestrians, whom they will follow onto the sidewalk if necessary. Often the only way to escape them is to duck into one of Paris' historic cathedrals, which fortunately are located about every 25 feet (or 83.13 liters).Nevertheless it's very pleasant to walk around Paris and feel - as so many Americans feel when they're in that incredibly beautiful city - fat. Because the fact is that we Americans look like enormous sneaker-wearing beef cattle compared to the Parisians, who tend to be very slim, with an average body weight of 38 pounds (7.83 meters). It's odd that the French appear to be in such good shape, because the major activity in Paris, aside from trying to run over pedestrians, is sitting around in cafes for days at a time looking French.
Sometimes we Americans try to blend in to the cafe scene, but the French immediately spot us as impostors, because we cannot pronounce the Secret French Code letter, which is "r." They have learned to say "r" in a certain secret way that sounds as though they are trying to dislodge a live eel from their esophagus. It is virtually impossible for a non-French person to make this sound; this is how the Parisian cafe waiters figure out that you are an American, even if you are attempting to pass as French:
WAITER: "Bonjour. Je suspect que vous etes American." ("Good day. I suspect that you are American.")
YOU: "Mais je ne porte pas les Nikes!" ("But I am not wearing the sneakers!")
WAITER: "Au quais, monsieur pantalons intelligents, prononcez le mot Rouen." ("OK, Mr. Smarty Pants, pronounce the word Rouen.")
YOU: "Woon." ("Woon.")
WAITER: "Si vous etes Francais, je suis l'Homme de la Batte." ("If you are French, I am Batman.")
The other sure-fire way to tell the difference between French people and Americans in a cafe is that the French are all smoking, whereas the Americans are all trying to figure out how much to tip. The tourist guidebooks are vague about tipping: They tell you that a service charge is USUALLY included in your bill, but it is not ALWAYS included, and even if it IS included, it is not necessarily TOTALLY included. On top of that, to convert from French money to American, you have to divide by six, and I have yet to meet anybody who can do this.
And so while the French are lounging and smoking and writing novels, we Americans spend our cafe time darting nervous glances at the bill, which is often just a piece of paper with a lone, mysterious, not-divisible-by-six number scrawled on it such as "83." We almost always end up overtipping, because we're afraid that otherwise the waiter will make us say another "r" word. I frankly don't know how the French handle tipping, because in my two weeks in Paris I never saw a French person actually leave a cafe.
Not that I am being critical. As a professional journalist, I like the idea of a society where it is considered an acceptable occupation to basically sit around and drink. In fact, I liked almost everything about Paris. The city is gorgeous, the food is wonderful, and they have these really swoopy high-tech public pay toilets on the streets that look as though, if you went into one, you might get beamed up to the Mother Ship. Also Paris has a terrific subway system, Le Metro (literally, "The Metro"). I always felt safe and comfortable in the Metro, although one time, when I was waiting for a train, the loudspeaker made an announcement in French, which was repeated in English, and I swear this was the whole thing: "Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. Robbers are in the station. Thank you." None of the Parisians seemed the least bit alarmed, and nobody robbed me, which was a good thing, because I would have had no idea how much to tip.
I have run out of space here, but in next week's column I will tell you about some of the famous tourist attractions of Paris, such as the L'Arc D. Triomphe, Notre Dame, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc. So until next week, as the French say, "Au revoir." (Literally, "Woon.")