Tuesday, April 18, 2017

You can be the center of the world

      "I'm listening," announced the waitress, walking up to our little round table at a small bistro called "Le Centre du Monde" on Rue Galande not far from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris Monday night. I asked her if the salmon in citrus sauce is good. She gave me a curious look, as if I had asked something exceedingly obvious.  An almost insulted look that said, "Of course it is."
     "It is ... in citrus sauce," she replied, and I took that as a confirmation, of sorts, and ordered it, even though I had already had salmon at lunch.
     The fish was more than good, it was excellent, served with rice and ratatouille, and as we ate I asked my son if "I'm listening" is a common French idiom, something waitresses typically say to prompt an order. No, he said, he didn't think so. Maybe it was particular to her.
     I considered asking the waitress, a majestic Gallic beauty. But that seemed a Bad Idea.
     Perhaps as compensation, as we headed out the door, I asked a passing waiter why the restaurant is called, "The Center of the World." He laughed, a short, derisive laugh, the laugh an unkind person would make seeing a stranger trip and fall and hurried outside to smoke a cigarette.
     But as we stepped onto the street the owner, an older man--okay, maybe he was my age--followed us out of the restaurant. I asked the question again.
     "This used to be a Roman road," he began, gesturing to the narrow cobblestone street in front of the place. "The Romans built them east to west. About 100 meters away is Notre Dame Cathedral, which is the center of Paris. Distances of the various roads to Paris were measured from that spot."
     He went on quite a bit, saying, in essence, France is the center of Europe and Paris is the center of France and this is the center of Paris."
     "Now of course we know the world is round, so the center is..." He gestured down below. " Now the center of the world can be anywhere. You can be the center of the world."
     I understood what he meant, and thanked him. "The dinner was excellent," I said.  
     He gave me a surprised look, as if to say, "Of course it was."


  1. And I thought "I'm listening" was just something said on the Frasier sitcom.

    1. A reader tells me it's a common restaurant expression in France, akin to "what'll you have." And is intentionally informal to undermine the servanr aspect of waiting table in a theoretically egalitarian society.

  2. Know the neighborhood well, we stayed in the Hotel St.Honore near the Pont Neuf. Parisian service people have a unique way of expressing their disdain for Americans, because we so obviously don't understand what they all know: that they ARE the center of the world and superior to us in every way!

    1. Somehow the "Ugly Frenchman" doesn't resonate, no matter how much it might fit. As for me, I don't recall meeting one single Frenchman that conformed to the stereotype. Actually, I can't recall meeting one single Frenchman or woman.


    2. I didn't mean to suggest that they were being condescending; more that the quality of the food was a given, something too obvious to remark upon.

  3. I found the French, even Parisians, to be perfectly polite, at least as long as you've taken the trouble to say "please" and "thank you" in their language.

    Idioms are tricky in any language, but probably even more so with the French. A friend who works for the Federal Reserve told me of his boss being required to address a conference of international bankers in French, since the meeting was in Paris. He had some help supplementing his high school French to compose the speech, but midway through departed from the written text to acknowlege the presense of the President of a French economics society, a well known lady economist. He said experts on his staff were familiar with her work and considered her "a real pro." When members of the audience smilled he took it to mean they were pleased at the compliment, but when he asked the moderator how his speech had gone over, the man said: "Very well. Except perhaps when you call Madame La President a prostitute."


    1. Once a friend of mine (definitely not me) was in Paris and found himself wanting some strawberry jam or marmalade. He couldn't think of the right word but figured it had to be something like "preserves," so he entered a shop and said to the clerk, Je voudrais des preservatifs aux fraises."

      What that actually meant was, "I would like some strawberry-flavored condoms."

      The guy looked at him funny and said, "Until now, monsieur, I didn't even know those things came in flavors."

  4. Just curious Neil...did you talk to these folks in French, or did they speak English?

  5. Oh, yes. I remember standing at the center of the Universe in Paris.


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