A Taste of France
by Rikke Jorgensen
"There is a pubic hair in my pasta." I said this calmly, with as much dignity as I could muster. Across the table from me, Karen paused in mid-chew and put down her knife and fork. Her eyes quickly scanned the surrounding diners for any undue attention. Perhaps they heard me say "pubic." We were in Grenoble, and people understood English very well. She carefully moved the silver pot of flowering lavender out of the way, leaned over the white-draped table and inspected the black, curly hair, complete with a white bulbous follicle, sitting on a freshly made goat cheese and spinach ravioli like an innocent bit of extra garnish.
"Could be a chest hair," she said.
Karen is English and will suffer almost any humiliation quietly rather than make a fuss. "It's too curly for a chest hair. Could be from an arm pit, I will give you that," I said, raising a hand to get the waiter's attention. "Pit or crotch, I'm not going to eat it."
"You could just put it to one side," Karen suggested. The fingers of her right hand smoothed her napkin, ironed it against the table. "I mean, what are you hoping to achieve?" English or not, in this instance she wasn't merely adhering to a genetic and cultural disposition for confrontation avoidance. Having lived in Grenoble for years, she had reason to question what greater good complaining would serve. In England or the United States, apologies would have been forthcoming, as would a fresh portion or a different dish at no charge. But this was France and we both knew better.
Only three days earlier, on a cobblestone square in Aix-en-Provence, I had been served a salad with Lollo Rosso lettuce, artichoke hearts, pine nuts, and dirt. Not a modest little dusting of dirt, crunching between my teeth, revealing a somewhat superficial rinsing, but a hearty clump of good, French soil. I could have grown cress in it. I showed the waitress, a wiry thirtyish woman, expecting a modicum of remorse and a new salad. Instead I got an overbearing smile and "C'est un peu de terre...." It's a bit of dirt. What's all the commotion about? I insisted that the dirt should not be in my salad, so, with a look suggesting that to her I was the human equivalent of a Chihuahua having a yapping fit, she tore off the ruffled lettuce leaf where the clump resided and threw it on the ground in front of my sandaled feet. "Voila!" Then she walked off to serve less demanding customers.
At eating establishments I generally prefer my salads without compost, and any type of hair in my food will dramatically reduce the chances of repeat business from me. But I appreciate the lack of humility displayed by the average French service provider. Though occasionally counterproductive in the business sense of the word, it is at the very least honest. It is what France is all about: a sense of equality and personal pride, a refusal to ingratiate. Compare this with the American till operator squeezing out a "Thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart," when really, he just wants you to pick up your change and exit his personal planet.
American service is second to none when it comes to free water expediently delivered at the table, Disney smiles, and verbal smoothies, but the pleasantness is often so forced and artificial that it leaves you feeling more resented than by the irreverent French. Service is considered an unnecessary extra in France—a luxury reserved for the staggeringly rich and powerful. Ordinary people should not expect to be pampered, life is not for the cosseted or the easily deterred. Casual disdain is part of the experience; an enthusiastically served meal belongs in Greece or Italy, not France. The liquid mix of charm and superiority that characterizes the hotel receptionist, the boutique owner, the green grocer, is a language of its own: of sighs, pregnant pauses, slow feline gestures, and shamelessly verbose eyebrows.
Familiar with this language, I was not expecting heartfelt apologies or cheeks burning with chagrin at my presentation of the hair, even in this relatively expensive restaurant where Karen and I were dining. Setting myself what I considered a realistic goal, I was aiming for a replacement portion, sans pubes. After many unsuccessful attempts at making eye contact, I managed to attract the attention of our whiskered head waiter who floated over and asked with a half-smile what he could do for me. I pointed out the curled-up evidence. He sighed and looked at me like he would love to help and was saddened by the fact that he could not, as if I had just asked him to donate a kidney. He shook his slick, dark head slowly and said "It is not mine...."
Rikke Jorgensen is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in many publications including The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, the San Antonio Express-News, Eurowoman, and Our Animals, the San Francisco SPCA magazine. This essay was previously published on KineticTravel.net.