Photo Credit: panoramas.dk
The year was 1967 and a week after the 6 Day War I told my father I was leaving Israel to go to Paris to study French at the Alliance Francaise. I had already taught myself French using math texts and a series of French comic books called Asterix, the funniest comic books I have ever read (and a good way to learn French idioms and puns). But I knew it would be difficult carrying on a normal conversation using terms such as Fourier transforme et calcul différentiel and dirty double entendres, so I decided to get colloquial French under my belt.
Since this would be my first time in France, my father suggested I pay a visit to his aunt, Madame Leon, a retired French Journalist living in the posh 16th Arrondissement, an area of Paris exclusively for the very, very wealthy. I told him I would call on her near the end of the summer so my French would be a lot better. He sent her a letter and made all the arrangements.
I was living in a dorm in the Place Pigalle, the notorious Red Light district of Paris and when I wasn't in school, I would sit in cafes to absorb the local color, browse through book stores and museums or just catch a movie at the cinema - usually an American flick dubbed in French with English sub-titles.
Movies theaters back then ran advertisements before running the featured film and so I have to mention that deodorant sprays must have just hit the market in France because ads for this product always drew snickers in the theater audience. I remember one ad where some poor soul on a bus was withering under the stench of a hairy beast of a sweating woman. Exasperated, he took out a bottle and gave her underarm a shot of deodorant spray; the commercial ending on his smile.
Photo Credit: Virtual Tourist
Well the summer went by quickly and I became rather proud of my language skills after about one thousand hours of practicing French. I called Madame Leon and made sure I still had an appointment to see her. The Avenue de New York where she lived is a very short block bordered with trees. On the map it was only about 3 miles away from my dorm on Rue Victor Masse so I decided to walk it. It turned out to take about 2 hours because the streets are quite short and crooked unlike those in most large American cities.
But I finally made it without getting up a sweat, it was a fairly cool late August evening. I had to pass a gated entrance opened by a concierge and made it to the fifth floor by way of a gilded, wrought-iron elevator that looked like it was fabricated in the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. When Madame Leon let me in to her apartment I received a blast of ancient air. The place was spotless yet cluttered with memorabilia and statues, vases, bric-a-braq, the walls were completely covered from floor to ceiling with photos, paintings, awards, testimonials, and certificates of accomplishment. Madame Leon was born in 1890 and was writing for magazines and newspapers in the early part of the 20th century. She even had a signed letter from Marcel Proust shortly before he died framed and in easy view telling her how he enjoyed reading her articles.
She ordered some tea and we talked in what seemed to be a living room with very wide windows. She had the curtains drawn aside and opening before me was an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower which filled the frame of the window. I think I said something clever like, "Nice view." I normally have no problem speaking with strangers but here I was with my Grand-Aunt whom I never met before and who hadn't seen my father in half a century when he was only 13 years old and so the conversation was rather short. Considering how distant a relative I was, she was merely being polite seeing me at all, I suppose. But she did invite me to dinner the next evening; she was having a dozen old friends over and would I like to come. Had I been a bit more mature or wise for my age I would have politely begged off; why would she want a young stranger - barely related - come to dinner?
By the way, here is the view of her apartment building from the Eiffel Tower.
If you click on the image for a larger view, her apartment building is circled in green.
So the next day I put on my best jeans and madras shirt (which was sooooo very American at that time) and showed up for dinner. I knew something was wrong when I noticed that everyone else was wearing evening dresses and tuxedos, except for an Army Officer who looked very imposing and the least ancient in the crowd. Madame Leon was at the head of the table and I was seated about 7 chairs away from her. I thought at the time that the seating was based on age since the Officer next to me looked about 50 or so and the youngest there except for me. Before dinner started getting served she introduced me as her grand-nephew from New York. Actually I told her I was from New Jersey but somehow New York got stuck in her head.
Well, we started off with about 11 knives, forks and spoons and as the dinner progressed the number got smaller. I tried very hard to make sure I was using the correct utensil without looking obvious about it. We had onion soup, salad, an appetizer, bubbling water, more appetizers, a tureen filled with what must have been beef stew, some creamy things, a very tiny entree of chicken, about a half dozen small dishes of different kinds of vegetables, another entree, some wine, frites, a jellied meat that tasted like duck, liver pate, more wine, long baguettes that I was expected to slather with butter, and this continued for about ninety minutes punctuated only with conversation while we waited for each course to come out. Insanely, what was talked about while we waited for the next onslaught of dishes was the food we just finished eating. There were some jabs at current events but inevitably someone would remark on some delicacy and the table would join in.
Then They Brought Out a 1,000 Cheeses
You would think that after an hour and a half I would have been stuffed, but actually I was still hungry. The portions were so small and the time in between waiting for the next serving so long that I was barely filled although everything was so delightfully tasty. Then, near the end, out came what seemed like a thousand cheeses.
In America my family was used to about three cheeses: white, yellow and Swiss. And we didn't eat them at the end of the meal; they were on top of the meal. But in France, ooola la, a thousand cheeses. Everyone was cutting and splicing and chewing and smacking their lips with their favorites. They were arrayed in all shapes and colors. I saw a large round hunk of pale cream-colored cheese that looked absolutely tantalizing. The color and texture were so inviting I had to try a slice for myself. I lifted my knife and cut a thumb-sized wedge and took a bite of it. All of a sudden four members of the table around me stopped dead. They looked at me for only a moment and turned away as if I impolitely passed gas. The Officer sitting next to me leaned over and, not looking directly at me, whispered quietly in my ear, "Monsieur, you are eating ze wax."
I woke up the next morning in my dorm in the Place Pigalle. To this day, I do not recall how the dinner ended, whether I had some coffee and pastries, even whether I spit the wax out or swallowed it, how I got back home or who undressed me. The entire period of time between "Monsieur, you are eating ze wax." and waking up in my bunk bed is a complete blank and a total mystery to me even til today.
I never saw Madame Leon again.
This story covers item #11 from my post Things I have Done