It is the most beautiful summer’s day I have seen yet in Salies. The sun shines and lightly burns the skin, the sky is an almost painful blue without a cloud in sight and a light fresh breeze blows; there is no humidity. I take to the Jardin Public late, after chatting as is becoming the custom with the internet love of my life, Doug. It is eleven o’clock before I even take poor Salomé out for the morning duties. The quiet of the day, its perfectness hits me the moment I set foot in the street. Gone is the noise and bustle from the days of fêtes, gone are the people hurrying up or down the street depending on the events, gone is the constant stream of cars passing through the Cours du Jardin Public in front of my building. Silence, breeze and sunshine greet me. It is delightful. Salomé and I set off on our usual path (dogs are creatures of habit, it seems, and Salomé has the special places she likes to pee and poo; if I take her on her known route, it is a no-miss and soon we are through with the musts and can do our, or rather, my liking), and run into the upstairs neighbour walking his dog. He is a quite elderly man (I realize that soon I will be the “quite elderly” woman, but still I can say that about others) with a dog that –he tells me- is 12 years old (approximately 84 in human terms, or so they say, so they would perhaps be around the same age) and that goes bananas every time he sees Salomé, whining and sniffing and wagging his tail till it would want fall off. We greet (Bonjour), our dogs greet dog-fashion, Salomé greets him, his dog greets me: it is a very friendly meeting. He asks when I am leaving; I tell him and we part (bonne journée). The day is perfect. On the way back to the studio, I realize that it really is too late to have breakfast: I will eat half an apple, feed Salomé and then go out for lunch: a perfect plan for a perfect day. It is even perfect to have allowed the hunger of morning to meet the hunger of midday and plan an especially sumptuous meal.
It is not that I don’t eat out almost every day in Salies; I do, and this has given me –apart from a new patience with service and restaurants in France- a vision of how things work as far as eating out goes. The first thing that I noticed is the service: it is definitely sloooooooooooowww in comparison to service, say, in Spain and certainly to that which one might find in the United States. In Salies, small restaurants have one person serving and one person in the kitchen, many times husband and wife or parent and offspring; larger restaurants have two to three youngsters waiting on the tables (all the service seems to be of college age more or less, unless you get the husband-wife combination) and two or three persons in the kitchen. There is no such thing as FAST FOOD!!! Never, no where, not even in stores or with street vendors on market day where ready-made food is dispatched. Waiting on people seems to be an exercise in extreme patience both on the part of the waiter and of the person being waited-on. Actually the term fits the pace: they wait, you wait for what might seem an eternity if you are hungry. As I studied this phenomenon, I noticed certain things: for instance, someone will call the waitress (Mademoiselle), the waitress will then give no indication whatsoever of having heard the summons, and then the summoner will go back to whatever he or she was doing previously (talking to someone else at the table, or eating whatever is on their plate) as if they no longer wished to be waited on. There is never another glance in the direction of the waitress and much less –heaven forbid- another verbal reminder of one’s desire to be attended. The waitress will then finish whatever she is doing at the next table, return to the kitchen to place a pending order, clear off two nearby tables, bring out a desert for someone seated at the table farthest from the kitchen and then, perhaps, present herself to the summons looking, for all the world, as if she is tremendously pressed for time and has answered the call simply because she wishes to be polite to all the customers, not only to the ones that quietly take what they get and never consider calling a waitress over for something extra. I often wonder how the person of the summons has not forgotten the reason for the initial summoning by the time the summoned arrives.
That is not all that happens, as it would seem that restaurants are the epitome of paradox and the basic reason for everyone not French to go stark raving mad in this country. In a restaurant, everyone bustles -except the customers, of course- moving with great haste and precision, seemingly zipping back and forth and yet, taking an inordinate amount of time to produce anything, from the menu, to the drink ordered, to the meal or the bill at the end. There is no where in Salies where this is more obvious than a restaurant called Le Tannerie (this is the restaurant where I still have to eat the “moules-frites” some day, not having been successful in getting there on time twice now).
In Le Tannerie there is one young lad serving the tables, and a woman –supposedly the owner- preparing the dishes and, occasionally helping out at the tables, or bringing the bill. By the time I come to Le Tannerie for my second or third meal I already know what to expect so I can observe the functioning more closely. The young man who attends the tables is a pleasant-faced youth of medium height and somewhat bowed legs who seems to know his business, or would like everyone to think he does. He dresses in tight, faded jeans and what looks like a clean chequered shirt. As I come in, he signals me to a table and then collects the extra place setting. Before he can leave I quickly ask for a sparkling water and ice. His look tells me he is not ready to take my order yet, so I sit back and watch. He takes the clean place setting he has removed from my table into the kitchen, he brings out one serving for the table of five next to me; he returns to the kitchen, brings out a bill for the couple near the door that is ready to leave; he goes back to the kitchen, brings another dish for the table of five, returns to the kitchen, comes out with a rag and cleans the table just abandoned by the parting couple; he goes back to the kitchen; he comes out again with place mats and napkins for the newly cleaned table; he returns to the kitchen and brings another dish for the table of five. Finally, he hands me the menu. He returns to the kitchen and brings knives and forks for the new table; he comes with his pad and takes my order; he returns to the kitchen; he comes back and collects two empty glasses from a nearby table that has been empty since I arrived; he goes back to the kitchen; he comes out again with the last two plates for the table of five; he returns to the kitchen; he emerges with my sparkling water and ice (he heard the order!); he returns to the kitchen; he comes out and clears a two plates off the empty table; he returns to the kitchen… and all this at great speed, looking as if each trip were to produce, finally, the miracle of service. I have the impression of a shuttle on a loom, zipping back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, one thread at a time, weaving an intricate pattern which takes an extreme number of passes to become visible, a shuttle whizzing to and fro building up the restaurant’s service as if it were an elaborate tapestry woven with threads of food and table settings and cleaning up and order taking and passing out of menus and money collecting, each thread woven into the design individually and yet part of the whole as soon as the shuttle has finished that journey and starts back to the other side of the loom. One wonders at the amount of useless energy spent in a way that so convincingly suggests efficiency and a strange form of order and cleanliness. Elsewhere, perhaps, one waitress would have brought out four or five orders on a large tray balanced between her hand and her left shoulder, emptied her tray at the awaiting table, brought me a menu, cleaned the two unoccupied tables of dirty glasses, dishes and table ware, taken my order mentally and returned to the kitchen in one tenth of the time it has taken the young man to shuttle back and forth doing all that divided into twenty nine individual trips, and yet, there is something fascinating and graceful about the way the French do it -no matter how frustrating the wait- each act individualized, singled out and given its own importance. I have now learned, in Salies, to allow at least two hours for lunch no matter where I go or what I order.
And today is such a perfect day with nothing other to do than to take care of myself, that I decide to go to my favourite (and most expensive) restaurant in Salies. It is called Les Voisins and is on a street of the same name. As the restaurant door (wide) opens onto a street juncture where the pavement widens (no cars are allowed on this street, only pedestrians, bicycles and an occasional motorcycle), the restaurant spills its tables onto the street and places umbrellas to protect from the sun. I am lucky and there is still an outside table. Here the service is attended by two girls and a middle aged woman who appears to be the owner or at least the maitre-de. One of the girls passes and I point to the empty table. She makes me wait while she consults with the older woman who looks at me, smiles in recognition (I have eaten there often) and signals me to take the table.
After the usual wait, they bring the menu, in this particular restaurant set up on a framed blackboard placed on a tripod which they stand beside the table so you can read it. It is very convenient: no reading glasses needed. My fancy directs me to the crab and shrimp entrée and the “cocotte” of sweetbreads as a main dish.
The day is so perfect that I have no desire to lose it burying my nose in a book, so I wait contemplating the adjoining tables and soaking in the filtered sunlight and the fresh breeze that runs up and down the street bringing with it the cries of children playing in the next block. A loud motorcycle zooms noisily through the corridor left for that purpose between the tables. I wonder at the strangeness of a motorcycle running through the middle of a restaurant for both sides of the street are lined with tables being waited on. My attention flits over to a nearby table and I notice something I have observed before. No matter the elegance of the service in its paused deliberateness, no matter the delicacy of the dishes adorned with tiny pink and red flowers, and sprigs of basil, thyme, mint or parsley; no matter the small neat patty of vegetables or rice, and the perfect serving of fried potatoes or the exactness of the filet mignon, the French seem to eat in a way that my father would have called “shovelling it in”. Perhaps, their patience exhausted by the long uncomplaining wait, they find no more with which to eat and chew one mouthful at a time. Or having waited so long, they are now overtaken by an uncontrollable fear that once obtained, the longed for dish will be swept away before than can finish it, for they actually seem to load the fork with inordinate amounts of food, shoving together the carefully separated –on the plate- meat, vegetables and potatoes and stuff the whole melée into their mouths, immediately replenishing the fork once more and literally shovelling it in before the first mouthful is effectively chewed and swallowed. It is fascinating to watch these graceful, patient ladies and dignified, patient men, suddenly turn into the hungry beast I have always felt myself to be in a French restaurant where I seem to be the only person ravenously awaiting my food. The rhythm at which a table of French can go through a meal, has nothing to do with the rhythm at which the meal is prepared and served. Three quarters of the time spent in the restaurant is given to the waiting, while one quarter seems to be all that the French allot to the consumption of what has been so patiently awaited.
Fascinated I watch while the lady at the next table, finishes a large serving of fish, rice and salad in no time flat (the French do not believe in leaving anything on their plates and seem to eat not only the food, but also all the decorations) and then proceeds –when it is finally brought- to pick up her cup of coffee and consume the contents in a rapid succession of sips without ever separating the cup more than a few centimetres from her mouth, much like a canary pecking at the seeds in the dish in front of it with tiny staccato movements of the beak.
All the while I have been watching I have been confronted with a dilemma: the sweetbreads (ris de veau) are not what I expected. In the beginning, I thought it might be because they were grossly undercooked for my taste (still bloody in the middle) and sent them back. They were returned, not as I had asked –well done- but still pink on the inside. There is no way I will insist and be looked at askance by the maitre-de, so I gingerly slice off a little piece and place it in my mouth. The barnyard, corral this-comes-from-a-cow taste catches in my throat and I realize that eating my serving will no doubt ruin my day and my mood. I slice off some bits and slip them under the table to Salomé who doesn’t mind the barnyard taste at all, but the brunt of the dish remains in front of me. Fortunately it comes in a darling, red mini-cocotte (clay cooking dish) with matching lid and I hide my distaste by putting the top back on the cocotte, and eating all my vegetables (delicious) and half the french fries. I am saved; I do not have to explain anything in my murderous French. “Ça etait?” Oui, ça etait. The shameful cocotte with the spurned sweetbreads disappears from view and the perfect Salies’ summer day extends all around me to remind me of how lucky a being I actually am, with a full stomach, a happy dog for company and ways to avoid eating something I don’t like.