French Bistro Social Experiment

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

I didn’t spend my high school years pining over French fashion, food or history. To be honest, I didn’t think about much else outside of my small town in Iowa. I was too busy with music, drama and sports to consider much else. That all changed on the first day of university when I met my future husband. He was a very tall, dark and handsome 17-year old that promised to be my study buddy for our freshman religion class. I was completely at a loss for what I was going to end up majoring in, but he was already set up as a double Russian and IT major with a French minor. This beautiful French language would spill out of his mouth at record speed every time he encountered a French classmate on campus. As we started to date, I would ask him to whisper French into my ear. “What should I say?” he would ask, but it didn’t matter, it all sounded the same to me: beautiful. I was in complete awe at his ease with the language, and honestly, how anyone could understand what he was saying, was beyond me.

Four years later, our little honeymoon hotel in Paris resided on rue Cler, a bustling pedestrian street close to the Eiffel Tower. It was filled with fruit, vegetable, meat and fish stands that would spill out onto the cobblestoned street at an ungodly hour. It smelled divine and it still holds a special place in my heart. Directly across from our third floor hotel room was a Chinese take away store that had an orange juice making contraption. Have you seen one of these? Oranges are dumped in a hopper at the top of the machine, they are cut in half, and pressed into a delicious, thick juice that drips from a spout at the bottom. I knew I wanted a glass of that juice. However, my newly minted husband decided that it would be best for me to learn how to order a glass of juice myself. So, I started practicing how to say, “I would like a glass of orange juice please”. I know it sounds like quite an easy statement in your native language, but I found it quite tricky in French. My French knowledge up to that point consisted of words of which my grandmother would not have approved. After a full thirty minutes of rehearsal, I was able to ask, “Je voudrais un verre de jus d'orange, s'il vous plaît.” Ugh, it still makes my stomach flutter with butterflies to say it outloud! But guess what? I got my glass of juice!

Fast forward another two years. My husband worked for one of the world’s top 5 companies and he had a dream to work in France. Armed with a French language business certification, his dream came to fruition much sooner than we expected and he was offered a job in a suburb of Paris at the age of 24. It happened so quickly, that I didn’t really have time to think about how to prepare for a move across the world. I certainly didn’t prepare for speaking a new language on a daily basis. My only French lesson had been when we were in Paris on our honeymoon two years earlier.

Because of conference season (something else I’d never heard of) in Paris, we were not able to stay in one hotel for the three weeks necessary before our apartment was ready. This meant that we had to move all 15 suitcases and a cat three times with the help of a couple of taxis. Of course, my husband was already hard at work during this time and I was left to fend for myself. The first hotel we stayed in was right next to the Montparnasse train station. The hotel did not allow cats, so we had to sneak Sydney into the room and always left the Do Not Disturb sign on the door so the maids would not come into the room.

My daily escape from the room included shopping for electronic items and meal times. Just around the corner from the hotel was a cute little bistrot that I had my sights set on for lunch. There was a placard on the sidewalk announcing their lunch specials and it smelled divine. After another grueling French lesson from my husband, I was sure I would be able to order my meal. Of course, I had everything planned out in my head, but forgot to factor in that there was going to be another person involved in the conversation. Thankfully, my husband had helped me think of a way to break the ice by explaining that I was new to Paris. It had to have been clear from the stammering and stuttering of my French that I was new to Paris, but I wanted it to be obvious that I was making an effort and lighten the mood.

My effort lead to a delicious meal of soup followed by a leg of duck confit. What was even more interesting than the food was watching and listening to the behavior of the waiters depending on who was sitting at a table. There were clearly regulars that got wonderful attention and care while there was another class of customers that were just there to eat and run. I wanted to become a regular, but knew it was not going to be easy considering I didn’t speak more than two sentences of French!

And so my experiment began. No matter where our hotel moved, I continued to patronize the restaurant near the Montparnasse train station. Its baby blue painted wainscoting and sparkling chandeliers seemed very familiar after three weeks. What also became familiar, was me. I kept learning more and more sentences that I could utilize when ordering my meal and started to add little bits of information about myself when possible. The waiters went from dismissive to welcoming in quite a short period of time. After the first week, they would seat me further away from the front door or closer to a bouquet of flowers. After the second week, I was met with a glass of bubbles as a greeting. This was the most amazing social experiment I had ever performed (yes, I could be found performing social experiments on a regular basis)! And it became obvious to me that real relationships could be formed with consistent patronizing.

Living in Paris became a series of social experiments for this American teacher. It gave me a goal to achieve after experiencing not the best service. The butcher, the cheese maker and the Moroccan fruit seller would soon be on my list of social experiments.

April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link:

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