As a food blogger and self-proclaimed foodie with a fairly strong handle on the French language, I was definitely excited to be living, studying, and – most importantly – eating in Paris for a whole semester. Paris is widely accepted as one of the food capitals of the world, so I was going to make the most of my stay. I wanted to try as many different things as possible. I spent a lot of time trying to discover where to find “the best” of everything: the best baguette, the best croissant, the best cheeses, etc. I did this work mostly solo, with the exception of the quest to find the best crêpes in Paris, where I was helped by an Australian studying on exchange at the same university as me. In case you were wondering, the best place to find crêpes in Paris in on the rue de Montparnasse, a street completely lined with crêpe restaurants.
Something that interested me a lot, beyond all the delicious flavors I was tasting, is the different set of customs that surrounds eating and buying food in Paris. For one thing, the restaurant and café experience is totally different. When you go out to eat in Paris, the whole process is slowed down. It’s normal to take a two-hour lunch break. People often sit down to take their coffee, an affair that usually takes at least half an hour. In fact, some of my French friends were laughing about how they felt like they were in an American TV series because they were walking down the street, drinking their coffee out of to-go cups.
When you go to a café in Paris, the server might bring your check with your drink, but you aren’t expected to pay, drink, and dash, you’re expected to sit for a while and sip it slowly, preferably over a good book or an animated discussion. I write “drink” rather than “coffee” because, by the afternoon, most café patrons have replaced their coffees with beer or wine. In fact, the line between a café and a bar in Paris is very blurred, from the menu to the décor.
When you go to a restaurant, the experience is even less hurried. If you’re taking a while to decide what to order, you’d ask your server for “deux minutes” (two minutes) as opposed to our “just a minute”; even their familiar expressions take twice as long. Dinners start later, with 7:30 as “tourist hour”, as most Parisians wouldn’t dream of eating before eight or nine. When you do start eating, it’s common for dinner to last two or three hours if you’re having multiple courses. The order is a bit different too, with the salad coming after the main dish. And, if you don’t know French, be aware that the “Entrée” in France is the starter, not the main course. If you’re in a traditional “brasserie” don’t be surprised to find a pot of mustard on your table next to the salt and pepper. Mustard in France is a staple condiment, and it tastes much, much stronger than American mustard. When you are ready to leave, you must flag down your server and ask for “l’addition”, the check; they won’t just bring it to you. It’s really nice being able to sit and relax without anyone hovering over you, waiting to kick you out and seat the next customers.
There are a lot of myths about buying food in Paris. We seem to have an idealized picture of visiting open-air markets, and small butcher shops, cheese shops, and bakeries. That just isn’t practical for day-to-day life. It may have worked before, with a “traditional” family model, but most people no longer have time to visit several different shops just to get their groceries. Instead, most people go to supermarkets, stopping perhaps at the bakery for bread, or in the other specialized shops for special occasions. Refrigerators are smaller there, on average, and fewer preservatives are legal, so it’s necessary to go grocery shopping a couple times a week. With a steady course load or a full-time job, it’s just more efficient to make one stop for everything you need. Sure the small stores have better quality goods, but they are also more expensive, especially for someone on a student budget. Something French supermarkets seem to do better than American ones, though, is encouraging the reuse of shopping bags. They charge for bags and usually expect you to bring your own. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone actually buy bags at the grocery store.
Now that my time in Paris is almost over, I’ve had a lot of adjusting to do. I’ve found I have some trouble finishing my lunch at Usdan in only 45 minutes. I don’t have delicious bakeries on almost every street. I can’t be able to order a glass of wine at a restaurant. However, it is be nice that salads are the least expensive thing on the menu again.
- Laura Hess ’16
A version of this article was originally published in The Wesleyan Argus