Register Friday | November 16 | 2018

Moules in St. Michel

How to have the worst meal in Paris

Follow these steps:

Make dinner plans with the chatty American with whom you bonded on the plane over shared wine and confessed dreams--for a flickering drunken moment halfway over the ocean, he was, after all, almost handsome.

Underestimate the truism that, just as you can have the best meals of your life in Paris, you can also have the worst.

Do not sleep in the dust-bunnied darkness of your new apartment, with its greasy cushions and bug problem, but instead wander the city in a starved daze.

Do not eat yet, despite your hunger, as you want your first meal in Paris to be a dream. Everything down to the last detail must be perfection—Madame Bovary knew this. You feel you live a life fraught with similar complications.

Instead, ramble through the sexy, narrow streets; past displays of oozing cheeses, past all the bread smells. Despite your severe disorientation and pounding hangover, note that several of the clichés are true: the French do in fact tote baguettes under one arm; the women are despicably thin, despite all the fabulous means by which they could get fat. Experience hostility and mystification as these women strut past you in pointy little shoes, walking pointy little dogs, eating tarts. Resolve to watch them more carefully. Pass out in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Wake at 10:30 in the evening, utterly disoriented and unsure of where or who you are. Remember and sigh. Decide you can walk to where the American suggested you meet—in front of the fountain in St. Michel. Even though this turns out to be very close by, get lost three times and ask for directions. Discover that you cannot depend upon the kindness of strangers. Find your way, despite your idiocy.

At the fountain, which depicts Saint Michel killing a dragon, flanked by winged lions spouting water from their open mouths, there are tons of men and women, also waiting. One by one their faces brighten as they encounter the person they are waiting for and disappear together, arm in arm. Your face does not brighten when the American arrives: he is shorter than you remembered and decidedly not handsome. Do not conceal your disappointment.

Walk through the glaring alleys of St. Michel, past the gyro stalls and crêpe stalls and sandwich stalls, and feel the gluttonous desire to buy everything you see. Do not yield to it—believe the American when he suggests you’ll fare better at a restaurant.

There are many restaurants down this way and many of them have shady waiters in their doorways beckoning you in with an oily smile or a mad flailing of the arms. When an adamant Algerian waiter flags you down from the doorway of a dingy, nearly empty establishment screaming, “Come in, come in,” relent under the pressure of his violent hospitality and sit down at a table by the window.

Think to yourself, how bad can it be? Learn quickly.

Though your heart tears itself in two as you read the menu that assures you all is already lost, continue to sit there, blinking back tears, afraid to get up and disappoint the Algerian waiter. Order mussels in white wine upon his recommendation and a half-bottle of wine. Watch the American order the duck in pepper sauce that you know is going to be awful. Resent him enough not to warn him.

When your basket of recycled bread nuggets arrives with your bottle of swill, kindly inform the waiter that both are not to your liking. Be treated to the first of many Qu'est-ce que je peux faire, mademoiselles this evening. Feel your heart darken and your blood pressure rise, and await the mussels in a new spirit of fatalism. Watch tourists waddle by on the street outside, gulping down massive gooey crêpes, chocolate smeared on their lip corners. Hate the American, even though he is decidedly handsome now that you are drinking again.

When the mussels arrive, steaming in their bowl, eat one and pray. Eat another. Decide finally that they are inedible—far too rubbery and salty—and complain in broken French to the Algerian waiter who nods at you, looking superficially concerned. While he runs off with your uneaten mussels to chew out the chef (or so he claims), grimly watch your American eat his duck. It is a very rubbery-looking piece of duck. You swear you can see your reflection in the brown puddle of sauce it sits in. The fries that flank it are corpse-white and the little clump of wilting lettuce that cradles the depressed slice of tomato tempts you to laugh out loud. Fail to resist this temptation.

You are terribly drunk by the time the waiter returns with the mussels you have not eaten—you have not eaten in weeks after all, having saved yourself for this moment like an embittered virgin—and when he sets them down in front of you again and tells you they are fine, do not hold your tongue, though historically you fear confrontation. Go right ahead and tell him what you really think of him and his establishment in no uncertain terms and in his own language, but in the wrong tense.

Pay your ludicrous bill and stumble out, muttering, into the night.

Having frightened away the American with your truck-driver mouth, you are now left to your own devices.

Realize you have no devices. Glare into the river. Paris is not at all like your shoddy little postcard dreams of it, it is better.

Buy a lemon and sugar crêpe and, moaning, eat it by the water’s edge, where the city gapes at you like the mouths of the lions in the fountain. By now it is late, very late, and only you and a few mad, heartbroken and/or drunk people are left. Watch as one of them leans over the rail and hurls obscenities into the dark water.

Find your way home.

Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) is Maisonneuve’s connoisseur of all things culinary and libidinous. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Veronica Tartley.