House Guests from Hell

The news is out. Nine million Americans are traveling abroad this year. But the more important statistic is how many will be visiting YOU this summer!

I don’t know about you, but around this time of year I usually get a phone call from the in-laws of some cousin in Bloomfield, Michigan, or St. Pete, Florida, informing me that they’ll be in Paris for a week starting on Friday and it’d be great if we could get together.  Sometimes it’s old alma mater friends, but often it’s worse, the friends of friends. You’ve been selected for the prime reason that they’re coming to Paris and you happen to live here. No one likes being stand-offish to friends of friends, but on the other hand who has the time and room and interest to crowd some tourists onto your living room floor. Anyway, Americans make lousy house guests in France. They have no consideration for the way we do things here. They wear massive pairs of sneakers, which don’t fit in the closets we don’t have anyway. They expect long, hot showers every morning, but they can’t seem to manipulate the shower nozzle without flooding the floor. Nor are our towels big enough or fluffy enough. They almost always want big breakfasts. Admittedly, they love baguettes, and they have plenty time and love to sit around depleting your pot of raspberry confiture. They fill their mugs to the brim with coffee and then top them up every few minutes. They don’t use sugar.  They eat cheese at the wrong time of day and cut the tips off wedges of brie.

They go out during the day but need complete directions. They show up again too early and expect you to be ready for dinner before 7pm. They want to get good French food but they often try to split appetizers or skip desserts. They hate the smoke and feel crowded in at most tables. They rave about a meal they had in a café. They can’t understand why they can’t have lunch at 3pm. They order their steaks overcooked and almost always have to send them back anyway.

I’ve already had my first wave of Yankee visitors – for the sake of this article let’s call them Jack, his wife, Pam, and their sheltered 13-year-old, Petunia. He’s a tax attorney; she works in the public library. Petunia, well, has pimples and wants to go to Yale.

It’s a nice Parisian evening and after a spin past the Louvre Pyramid I take them across the river, past the Sorbonne (a word that is more impressive than the building), and duck into the Brasserie Balzar, where we’ve reserved. Be prepared: tourist friends always ask you what’s the difference between a brasserie and a bistro. There’s no really good answer. You can order wine or beer in either and the food is the same. We get settled in, squashed into a booth, and I proceed to translate the menu, clarifying of course that the entrée, one of the few French words most Americans have mastered, is not the main course. Some things just don’t translate all that well. Museau vinaigrette is delicious but “beef muzzle in Italian dressing” tends to induce vomiting. I explain the rognons, the tripe, the boudin blanc – and little by little the faces start dropping. What about some French food! There are two preparations of lotte, one of France’s most cherished and expensive fish. But my guests have a hard time stomaching high-priced monkfish, that ugly creature that East Coast fisherman back home chuck back, sell off to Purina or export to Parisian chain-restaurant owners. We’re having fun, though, until the waiter deflates the moment by bringing over the English version of the menu. I see that bigorneau is winkle in English, a microscopic animal that the French love to skewer with straight pins. We order and my guests inform me that it’s a family tradition to share every dish equally. Three bites and the plate goes off to its right.  I’m feeling very French about now; I prefer not playing Russian roulette with my poireaux. The coquilles St-Jacques arrive and eyebrows are raised as I try to defend the presence of those bloated orange glands (corails) that are the delicacy here and that don’t even make it to the scale in the US. The wine comes and everyone’s happy; this is what France is all about. Pam notes the name from the label in a little notebook, repeating out loud the region “Bourgogne.” “We had some of that last night at our hotel.”

The waiter starts pouring but Jack covers Petunia’s glass. “She’s underage,” he reminds us, taking seriously his parental responsibility. Zero tolerance is the rule — otherwise, he informs us, they’ll lose her to hard drugs, gangs, unwanted pregnancy and the rest. In America, the fight between good and evil starts at the kitchen table. So poor Petunia is deprived of a lovely sip of Sancerre and is destined to sneak hits of Boone’s Farm behind the suburban Safeway as her initiation to the grape.

Just then another American family glides in on Scottie Pippen Nikes and with travel umbrellas, and bounces into the next booth. It’s starting to feel like Denny’s or the I-HOP with white tablecloths and suddenly I feel very guilty about having recommended this landmark in my Paris guidebook.

The two parties hear each other and cultural synapse follows. The rest is so clichéd that I fear no one will ever believe me — or, worse, faithful readers will lambaste me for telegraphed, stiff writing. I sit back and absorb this exchange à la Tocqueville or Beaudrillard.

“Hey, where you from?”

“We’re from Michigan.”

“You’re kidding, so are we.”

“Wow. What a coincidence. Where in Michigan?”

“South Bloomfield.”

“No joking, so are we! Did you hear that, Sandra — same town?”

“This is crazy, what street?”  the other asks, feverish with excitement. The encounter is getting to be too much for me and I feel both embarrassed and amazed. Next thing they’ll be playing “do you know?” Oh, how I’d like to evaporate just now. “Why do tourists from the suburbs of Detroit become gleeful at meeting more of the same in the Latin Quarter?” my psyche whispers and I begin to understand better why French people don’t talk to people they don’t know. Discretion eliminates the possibility of discovering that you’re sitting next to someone from the same town.

“We live on Trailblazer Court, just off Maple Drive.”

“We’re on Lakeland. You live just around the corner from us.”

Jack reaches over me and the orange scallops, extends a hand like a campaigning politician, and introduces his family.

“Hi, we’re the Goldmans. I’m Jack, this is Pam, and our 13 year old, Petunia.”

“Hey, my mother’s a Goldman, Nanny Goldman,” the father of the other family blurts out.

“Nanny, sure. You must know Seth Schwartz.”

“Seth used to be my partner.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a tax attorney.”

“I’m a lawyer too.”

This is over the top and the waiter and I are looking at each other, diverse individuals but sharing our mutual Parisness. He’s used to this from May to September; I’m not. Or else I forgot.  A bourgeois-looking Parisian couple at a nearby table look on, discreetly amused, and it dawns on me that while Americans go to French restaurants and sit in French cafés to see French people, maybe Parisians go to popular restaurants to observe the tourists.

Jack’s counterpart glances over to the Parisians, looks down at their seaweed-adorned platter of oysters and offers with that hybrid bravado you take on when you know (or assume) the others can’t understand you: “Enjoying those suckers, huh?”

“Very delicious,” the Frenchman answers, surprising everyone.

The two teenagers sitting next to Petunia are looking at the menu-the English-version-as if it were in hieroglyphics. Their father tries to help: “What’ll it be girls, meat or fish?”

Adventurously, they opt for steak and the father tells the waiter to bring “on the side” some “Bernaise-sauce. That’s French, right?”

“So, were you at the Himmelfarb bar mitzvah?”

“Yeah, we were there. What a spread, huh?”

I try to lead us all back to the fact we’re in Paris and we’re eating choucroute and magret de canard and we should not talk about far off bar mitzvahs.

Jack points to me and blurts to the others, “This guy wrote the book.” And he points to my name on the cover.

“That’s you? You’re him?”

Now I want to run.

“You know my wife could sell a hundred of these, couldn’t ya, hon? She’s a travel agent and she knows everyone.”

“I’m not a travel-agent. But I probably could sell a hundred of them.”

“Sign it. We want to buy it,” the husband barks. And my pseudo-travel-agent neighbor takes out a pouch of American cash and purchases the book. No messing around. Cash and carry à l’ américaine.

The profiteroles arrive and everyone is impressed by the flow of rich chocolate. I remind both tables that all chocolate in France contains at least 35% cocoa and can reach over 70%. Hershey’s, I add, contains a paltry 2%, and that’s why I live in France.

The bill comes and Jack lunges for the check. Merci, Jack. The other lawyer chimes in, a twinkle in his eye: “Hey, two lawyers talking over dinner; that sounds like a write-off.” My guest, the tax man, replies: “Yeah, from behind bars.” Everyone laughs. We’re having a good time.

The teenagers leave half their steak, it’s too tough, but lap up the fries in the Bernaise. Petunia eyes the Sancerre woefully. We loll outside onto the rue des Ecoles and breathe in the Paris evening air, and my guests pinch themselves with delight. “Paris is great. Can you believe we’re in Paris, dear?” He gives her a playful noogy.

“Let’s go up the Eiffel Tower.”

That’s my cue. I don’t go up the tower more than twice a decade.  We exchange e-mail addresses and I leave them on that one, and trot down into the Métro, the soul of Paris, thinking just how funny Americans are, how embarrassing it was, and just how much damn easier it was to laugh.