Monday, June 30, 2014

Don’t Try to Talk to Russians in Paris (If You Are An American)

One of the myriad joys of sitting in a French bistro or restaurant has always been – for me – the people that I often get to talk to.

Whether sitting at Le Départ Saint-Michel, Le Bonaparte, Café du Metro or many less frequently attended, and therefore not remembered by name, at the little round tables scattered hither and yon, or at Brasserie Lipp in the interior at a banquette (see for more on that) I have always been able, if I wanted to, to talk to people adjacent to me that attracted my attention; sometimes the situation has been reciprocal – I had attracted their attention.

The grease that has lubricated the communication machine that has allowed me to talk to such  an interesting variety of people over the years is the English language. 

It is surprising how universal English is.

Really, demoralizing would be a better descriptor.

If one wants to try to stumble though one’s French, most waiters don’t have time for that. 

They just talk in English.

Probably the pinnacle of conversation-in-the-bistro incidents was several years ago when Mysti and I were in a very crowded one of the Brasseries Fernande. 

The guys next to us asked us if we spoke French.

Mysti does.

They said, “great, can you help us with this menu?  We are Italian and we don’t speak French”.

We did and an interesting conversation ensued.

And I have had many other similar encounters over time.

A uniform aspect of these encounters has always been that, when I finally decide to – politely (“please excuse my rudeness”) interrupt the conversation at some adjacent table – or bench space in the next slot at the banquette – has been that the interruptees always respond with some degree of cordiality.

The least cordiality I have ever encountered has been several times with Brits: they have always cordially responded to me with statements that – given that I do speak English – I have easily been able to parse as meaning “fuck off; we don’t talk to Americans”.

So today at my au revoir dejeuner at Le Depart Saint-Michel I perceived an opportunity looming from the following little story.

And, I thought, it was about to become le premiere of conversation opportunities de brasseries de Paris to date.

I was eating the green salad that I had ordered as dessert to the really good steak au poivre et frittes that I had just wolfed down.

As I tried to shove an unruly glob of greens dripping French dressing into my mouth without too much residue being deposited on my beard I became aware of someone taking possession of the table immediately next to mine.

A voice appeared to be speaking French.

That seemed reasonable since the words and rhythm sounded vaguely familiar and I had no idea what they meant.

I would have faded to black from that had it not been for the next words coming from that adjacent table.

The voice had switched to a guttural from of English and had asked for the “English menu”.

I was, of course, interested.

Another conversation opportunity?

The plot thickened.

The voice also asked for the “Russian menu”.

I didn’t know that Le Départ had a Russian menu.

“This is going to be great” I heard in my head.

“I have never talked to a Russian.”


I waited until the voice’s (turned out to be a round little man – about five foot three and bald and about 300 pounds – basically a rather small man in the form of a very large egg) table mate had returned from the toilette, and they had examined their various menus, and had ordered before I made my move.

I am seventy one years old and it sounds really stupid that something such as this could be an exciting event after all this time and all the places that I have been in my life – but it was.

“I have never talked to a Russian” I heard from somewhere.

I had, while considering whether I was going to make an attempt at talking to this guy considered what I thought to be the obvious alternative outcomes of such an attempt:

1. He really didn’t speak English and we would smile and nod to one another and go back to our business.

2. He would respond in a manner similar to the Brits, mentioned above.

3. He would try to engage me with a brilliant command of French, to which I would have to mumble “je ne, etc.”

4. He would, as it sounded, speak English and another rapprochement of individuals, in spite of their governments would have taken place.


“Please excuse my rudeness for interrupting you, but do you speak English?” I said, having turned to face my maybe Russian bistro mates.

I might have thought that I had seen hate during the course of my life.

But at the moment that my round-man-intended-interlocutor looked at me, as I spoke to him, I knew that I had never really seen hate before.

He looked at me with such an intensity of hate that it almost frightened me.

“What do you want?” he said in a manner that closed the encounter with his last word.

He sort of snarled; spittle almost came forth.

He had a wolfishly canine manner.


I had no idea what to do.

It had been like a scene out of “The Exorcist”.

“Please forgive me” was the best I could do.

I turned back to my table.

I finished my salad.

I ordered a double espresso.

I nursed my wounds.

I thought about what, if anything, I ought to do in response.

My command of language and my sense of self worth, and my pride for my country were goading me to do something.


When I had finished and had paid my bill I stood up and purposely towered over the little round man and his table mate.

The little round man was engrossed with an encounter with a ridiculously shitty little camera; he had obviously chosen that as his premise for not looking at me.

Which he was NOT going to do – look at me.

I chose to wait; I figured I could wait him out and embarrass him into having to look at me.

I couldn’t.

I had stood there for long enough to make other denizens of the place to begin to look at me.

Finally I chose to speak.

“To answer your question.

“What I had wanted was to be able to talk to a Russian which has been a privilege that I have never previously had offered to me.

“I think I now know why that privilege has eluded me.”

And then I left.

In a lifetime replete with frequent oddities, this encounter had been among the very most odd.

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