February 10, 2015

Time and Again

In the 1600s, a man invented the pendulum clock and permanently eradicated confusion when one human being asked another, "What time shall we meet?" Henceforth, there are so many fun ways to respond: 10:10, quarter 'til 7, midnight, half past 4, at the top of the hour, in 20 minutes, high noon, eighteen hundred hours soldier! When a little less precision is necessary, our good friend Pope Gregory XIII hooked us up with an awesome calendar, so that two parties can easily agree on the date they will meet (August 12th). Over time, people and their governments have found other nifty ways to let us say a specific date without using any months or numbers: New Year's, Veterans, Bastille, Independence, Labor, Memorial, Boxing, Thanksgiving, Christmas Days, for example. There really is no reason nor excuse for obfuscation. The witches' answer to "When shall we three meet again?" is actually easy: Tuesday, February 10, 2015 at 6:45pm. Just about everyone on planet earth could understand that.

Except, of course, the French. Even though I have tried to eliminate it from my vocabulary, I still ask, "What time?" or "When?" with regularity. And my Burgundy friends calmly, coolly, and consistently foil my efforts to get a precise answer.

Let's list some of the possible answers (not necessarily in increasing levels of difficulty):

  • "Come over at the fin de la matinée." I generally get end of the morning: before noon, after 11:00. But is 11:15 too early? 11:45 too late? When this order is coupled with an expectation of alcohol, mass confusion can result. See: "Come over for apéritif."
  • Recently, I dropped my son off for a play date at a friend's house at 2:00pm. I asked the mother what time my wife should come back to pick him up. "Fin de l'après-midi." Ok, end of the afternoon. I started to walk away and then wheeled around on one heel saying, "Actually, to my American ears, I have no idea what that means. 3:30? 4:30?" She laughed and said, "How about 5:30? That way we can have a coffee together." For once, bizarro French time constructs were working in our favor. You want our four year old until 5:30? Take him.
  • "Come over for apéritif." As a college graduate, I have some experience with cocktails, and am generally game for coming over for them. But my USA-ness is hard to shake. Nobody invites anyone over for cocktails before 5pm in the Land of the Free (brunch bloodies potentially excluded). So when I hear "come over en fin de la matinée pour prendre l'apéritif," I confess to being boggled. If I am going to be offered booze -- including whiskey, wine, or homemade moonshine -- in the morning, I would prefer to push it to 11:59am. However, everyone here eats at midi, or noon, so if you show up one minute before twelve, you risk disrupting them as they shuffle to the table for lunch. However, of course, midi is a term that could very well designate 12:30, 1:00pm, or even 2:15pm. It's a hazardous guessing game. In the evening, this invitation means, generally, between 6:30 and 7:00pm and it can last anywhere from 1 to 7 hours.
  • Today a got a double-dip in a voicemail: "We should get together un de ces quatre" and "let's try to see each other en fin de semaine." It's Tuesday, and my correspondent thinks we should see each other "one of these four days" and/or "at the week's end." How do I schedule "one of these days/end of the week"? Thursday morning is too soon...but what about Thursday afternoon? And if we are talking about "one of these four days" literally, well, we're into the weekend. That cannot be right.
  • "Oh, my son and his family are coming to spend huit jours with me." So they will be spending one full seven-day week, plus one additional day? Wrong. "Not sure. They will figure it out when they get here. Could be three days or three weeks."
  • On Saturday, February 7, a man said to me, "See you in quinze jours." 15 days. In fact, we were scheduled to meet on Sunday, February 15, precisely huit jours away. As usual, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, France was right and I was wrong. 
  • Both huit and quinze jours are in the laborer's Hall of Fame. Plumbers, tilers, electricians, mechanics, farmers, and, mostly, public servants employ these terms with great regularity as a defense mechanism. It allows them to not work for an unspecified period of time, yet also gets the hopes up of the foreigner in front of them. "We'll look at that again in quinze jours," they will say, and, despite myself, I circle the date 15 days away. When will I learn?
  • "Snail season lasts from July 1 until Easter." What a great juxtaposition of specific and vague! Easter changes every year; that cannot be the law of the land. Just don't tell my friend that.
Nowadays, I am starting to get the hang of it. Éventuellement rolls of my tongue pretty easily. Soon, I'll invite someone over without uttering a number. When do I expect to be a master? Before too long. 

February 5, 2015

Warmth for Lunch

Sometimes, lunch is just food. It gives your body fuel for the rest of the day, each bite forgotten as soon as it swallowed. Sometimes, lunch is an eating marathon, the principle activity of one's day. Sometimes, lunch causes personal injury. And sometimes, lunch is a time to warm up.

It has been cold. Not cold like in my US hometown, where it was recently -22 in the sun, but cold for Burgundy nonetheless. A wind was whipping through the streets of Beaune at noon, and it was time to seek shelter and food. I stood in front of an Italian place I had been eyeing for some months and decided today was the day to take the plunge. 

The windows tipped the scales for me on this visit. As I stood on the frozen cobblestones, the glass panes of the restaurant were fogged by the breath of patrons, the steam of cooking, and, no doubt, the hot air of conversation. I went inside and told the hostess I was alone. "Mais pas dans la vie," I was quick to assure her. Not alone in life.

She said she had a table for me, but I would be next to other people. Would that be ok? Naturally. 

I sat and perused the menu, deciding that a thin-crust 4 Seasons pizza would be just right (artichokes, olives, prosciutto cotto, and mushrooms). After ordering, I looked around at the other customers. There were men in business attire, finishing their meal with an espresso. Young couples corralled their children the best they could. A table of lunching ladies worked their way through beautiful salads.

The hostess noticed my table was wobbling and brought over a shim. When I asked if I could have some of the breadsticks that were on neighboring tables, the couple next to me quickly offered their own, one of those little restaurant moments where they weren't eavesdropping, but couldn't help but overhear and just wanted to be helpful. The breadsticks were Italian and divine, dotted with salt and brimming with rosemary. The chill was gone, the red Santenay in my glass was opening up nicely, and everywhere around me was a symphony of French. (There are not many tourists in Beaune on a Wednesday afternoon in early February.) 

Luncheoning alone in crowded restaurants is under-appreciated. This day was a wonderful chance to observe: no book, no phone, no distractions, just looking and listening to the world around me while I waited for my food.