Monday, September 8, 2008
Sur le Meme Chose
"SANS PAN? "
Her voice rose again, now broadcasting our plight to the entire Parisean restaurant.
"Oui, sans pan," I replied through my teeth. I was starting to lose my cool as I stood behind the counter and watched the large, black, completely offended French woman throw up her arms in the air--again.
"C'EST IMPOSSIBLE, SANS PAN! C'EST--"
"C'est ne pas difficile. Construit un sandwich, avec beuf, avec fromage, mais sans pan!"
My voice was beginning to rise, almost matching the already blaring level of her own. It was not that hard: my brother could not have wheat. All I needed was a burger without the bun.
This woman had had enough. With several resounding shakes of her head and sweeps of her gigantic arms, she gave the ultimatum:
"Nous ne peuvons pas a constuire un sandwich sans pan. Non".
That was it, then. "We cannot make a sandwich without bread"--it seemed to be France's national motto. We were in the city of food, and we had searched all morning outside the Louvre for something--anything--that my gluten-free brother could eat.
The French love their bread; every meal is centered around this epitome of the dining experience. Breakfast is pastries or a baguette with all the fixings, lunch comes over or inside "pan", dinner is always--you guessed it-- bread. We had passed cafe after cafe that day only to see the usual fair, charmingly written on blackboards--"croque monsieur, sandwich jambon, sandwich beuf". The ability to read and speak the language did me no good without the means of really communicating our desperation.
The culture was deaf to "just make it 'sans pan' "; it was like telling an American, "No apple pie for me, thanks", or actually, more like "Hey, can I blow my nose on your flag?"
When we had spied the McDonald's sign, we literally took pictures of ourselves pointing at it, we were so excited to finally find a restaurant where we could easily alter the choices to make them gluten-free.
Now, our hopes were falling as flat as a badly-cooked souffle.
Angry, exhausted, and just plain at the end of my options, I took a deep breath and set my teeth--probably to keep from crying. My brother, anti-confrontational angel that he is, kept insisting in a low, frantic whisper that he was fine, he wasn't hungry, don't worry about it.
I looked the infuriating woman in the eye and began again.
"D'accord. Donnez-moi les fruits, le yaourt-- deux yaourt..."
Slowly, carefully, I ordered each of the things on the menu that I knew my brother could eat. Fruit, yogurt, orange juice, ice cream--fat and sugar, absolutely not adequate fare for a constantly-famished, growing teenage boy romping through Paris from morning to night, but it would have to do for right now.
The Parisean, calmed by this apparent armistice in the attack upon her culture, took the order and got us our lunch. I think she was a little embarrassed by her obstinacy, as was I. By the end of the transaction, we at least both offered a "merci," and a subsequent "de rien"--
and I think we both learned something.
Me, that speaking the language (sorta) doesn't necessarily mean you can communicate, and that being louder doesn't necessarily make you more correct-- and she, that this was one battle France could and would win.
I now recognize that culture separated our viewpoints; but common humanity really, and basic human needs--hunger--finally brought us to, if not agreement, at least a middle ground.
My French teacher would be so proud.