CATCHING A CAB IN PARIS STINKS, NOT THE DOG POOH

I step out into the cool Paris dawn, my trench coat buttoned high to ward off the intrusive chill of the zephyr like breeze as its eddies along the rue de Malte. It’s 5 am and I wait on the footpath for my taxi to arrive.

Across the cobbled street is a bistro where two waiters are busily placing tables and chairs on a narrow terrace in preparation for the early morning trade. With cigarettes clenched between white teeth they call, ”Bonjour. Ca va.” Their cheerful greetings a stark contrast to the surly non-communicative grunt received from the concierge as he let me out of my hotel, resentful, I suspect, at being summoned from his couch at such an ungodly hour.

It’s been my experience the Parisienne are largely undeserving of their reputation for being unfriendly. I found them mostly courteous and patient with my bumbling attempts to speak school-boy French. If it became too excruciating, they would simply slip into English thus saving me the ignominy of continuing in a language I obviously had no mastery over.

Their sense of style is legendary and to be envied. It applauds individuality and ignores the ordinary and the mediocre. Self-expression is encouraged in all things, be it fashion, furniture or food. That’s not to say everyone is elegant or indeed stylish. I did see the unusual and at times the truly bizarre but even then, these citizens of the Ile de France exude a confidence, a self belief by celebrating their individualism.

Dogs proliferate in Paris. They are seen everywhere. In cinema’s, restaurants, cafes, hotels and bars. I have even seen them, along with their owner of course, alight from taxi’s. The French are obviously made of far sturdier stuff than those of us living in the Antipodes. Our constitution seemingly so sensitive to canine germs, councils and state governments have seen fit to introduce a battery of by-laws to protect us from possible infection. When told, in Australia the law forbids dogs accompanying their owners into a restaurant, cafe or bar, the French exclaim in disbelief, “Ce n’est barbares!! “. (This is barbaric!!)

While the average Parisienne may love their dog, they are not so fond of picking up after them. Dog pooh is a major hazard for the squeamish and for the unsuspecting tourist. The Parisienne usually exercise a remarkable pragmatism when dealing with canine droppings. This was succinctly illustrated to me late one afternoon while seated in a cafe on the rue de Rivoli, enjoying a campari and soda.

From where I sat, I could see the comings and goings from that wonderful bookshop, Galignani’s. Its proud boast being it was the first English bookshop to be established on the continent. A more enjoyable way to spend a few leisurely hours, perusing its overflowing bookshelves, would I think be hard to find.

In front of this venerable bookshop I see a dog and its owner come to a sudden halt .When it becomes evident the dog needs to answer a rather untimely call of nature, its owner quickly pretends urgent business on his mobile phone. In moments, the dog has finished it’s undertaking and the pair hastily move on, leaving behind a rather large and malodorous deposit of dog pooh.

Miraculously, it stays undisturbed for a considerable amount of time. Adults stepped over it and children skirted around it. All is well until an immaculately dressed woman, coming out of Galignan’s, her attention focused on her recent purchase and not on where she is placing her feet, puts her Manolo Blahnik-shod foot right in it.

With enviable élan, Madame calmly steps out of her shoes, taking the shoe befouled with dog mess, she scrapes the excess muck off on the side of the gutter. That done, she delves deep into her Chanel tote and pulls forth a plastic bag containing another pair of shoes. These are quickly slipped on and the dirty shoes are placed in the now vacant plastic bag and discreetly secreted into the Chanel tote. With a spray of perfume she continues on her way apparently unperturbed by messy canines and their inconsiderate owners. A triumph for pragmatism.

I sit in a groovy bar in Le Marais. I order in English, the attractive waiter answers in French. I realize he’s asked me a question. I respond with “Oui “. Not sure what I’ve answered yes to, I soon discover when my drink is delivered. Vodka and Fanta! It’s vodka and soda I wish for.

Soda is all embracing in Paris. Coca-cola, lemonade, fanta, in fact all variations of soft drinks fall under its umbrella. It’s at your peril you order a spirit and soda. You must be specific. Unfortunately soda water is an anomaly in most Paris bars and you’re often given sparkling Evian water instead. Not quite the same.

One morning I take breakfast at a pretty Boulangerie. I’m seated at a long communal table. Two young men, impossibly elegant in trenches and scarves sit opposite. No English from them and no French from me. We find ourselves, as the French would say, “dans une impasse “. We make do with eloquent shrugs and apologetic smiles.

Meanwhile back on the footpath it’s turned 5.15. My taxi is late. It was ordered for 5am. I become anxious. What to do? Summon the concierge? He is already grumpy at having his sleep disturbed so it’s with reluctance I push the hotel bell. Minutes pass and just as I’m about to ring again I hear an irritable “Oui?” The concierge stands on a small balcony above me. ”Pardon Monsieur, but my taxi is late. I ordered it for 5am. Would you please ring the company and ask where my driver is”. A look of impatience causes his mouth to turn downward and his eyes upward, ”They will come” he shrugs offhandedly. My Anglo Saxon sensibilities are alarmed by his Gallic insouciance.

”That maybe Monsieur, but I have a aeroplane to catch and I don’t want to be late”. With a shuddering sigh he moves back inside. I can hear him speaking on the telephone. Moments later he is back on the balcony. ”You order it for 6am!” he cries triumphantly.

Before I can protest the contrary, I hear a voice from behind me call out in French. It’s one of the waiters from across the way. They have stopped work and now enter into a spirited discourse with the concierge. A volley of French sails back and forth. I try to interject and demand a new taxi be called. But to no avail, it falls on deaf ears.

It’s then I realize there are old rivalries at work between the waiters and the concierge. My predicament has become a vehicle for the waiters to score a point or two against an old foe, Monsieur the Concierge. The spirited verbiage continues back and forth. I am forgotten and all the while time marches exorably on. My anxiety at missing my flight reaches fever pitch. Finally I can bare it no longer.

”Monsieur! Monsieur!” I cry, passionately trying to interject. My blood at boiling point I angrily resort to using the one Anglo Saxon expletive that enjoys universal understanding. ”Monsieur, call another f*%#…. taxi now!!” My outburst silences all parties. The waiters melt away, quietly returning to their duties. Monsieur the Concierge assumes a look of offended hauteur.Using calm and measured accents not unlike one might use when dealing with a deranged person, he says,” But of course Monsieur. I do it right away”. He then closes the shutters with a decisive click  but not before I hear him mutter “ Que pouvez-vous attendre de I’Australie? Sublime Vulgarite.“ Suitably chastened, I’m left waiting for my taxi, alone, in the cold Parisian dawn.

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BUGGER THE PUDDING . LETS CONCENTRATE ON THE MAINS

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From experience, when asked to dine at Hebe’s, it’s advisable to eat before you go. While alcohol is plentiful, food can be less so. Hebe tends to forget or, I suspect, becomes bored with the original purpose of the party, especially after imbibing the better part of a bottle of Bollinger.

It is not uncommon for guests to depart hours later with no more sustenance than alcohol and a few canapés to fortify them on the journey home; confused as to whether the invitation had been for drinks only, and not dinner.

Tonight, a party of eight is assembled. With pre-dinner drinks done, we move into the dinning room. It’s a beautiful room of graceful proportions, a high ceiling and French doors that open out to the verandah. The table is laid with the family silver, starched napery, fresh-cut flowers and lit buy candlelight.

Hebe takes charge of the seating and, in moments, we have our places and begin to unfurl our napkins, large luxurious squares of white damask linen. You can imagine my consternation when my napkin reveals a hole so great it is entirely possible to pop your head through the yawning gap.

I quickly refold it in a manner to disguise the discrepancy of fabric and look to Hebe with an amused eye. Without noticing my glance in her direction, she has simultaneously realized her mistake. Her eyes – large with horror – dart around the table desperately trying ascertain the recipient of the defective napkin – which she had clearly meant for herself and not for an unsuspecting guest.

The dinner progresses, soup bowls have been cleared, and, from the cutlery left behind, it is indicated we are to expect two more courses – the main and a pudding. Wine is flowing freely as indeed is the conversation. Hebe stands and makes her way, somewhat unsteadily to the kitchen. Is it too much Bollinger or the six-inch Manolo Blahnik heels the cause  for her erratic gait? My charitable disposition resolves to blame both.

From where I sit, I can see clearly into the kitchen. A saucepan of boiling water is on the stove. Hebe adds salt and empties two big packets of spaghetti into the pot. She quickly slices tomatoes and cucumber, throws them into a large salad bowl along with torn lettuce. That done she turns her attention to the now-ready pasta.

Staggering slightly from the weight of the saucepan, she pours water and pasta into a waiting colander sitting ready in the kitchen sink. Allowing it a moment to drain , she then pours a little olive oil over the pasta.

Hebe then picks up the colander and begins to vigorously shake the remaining water from the pasta. Suddenly the spaghetti, as if life has been miraculously bestowed it, leaps from the colander. An oozing sinuous entity and, with great speed, proceeds to mount its escape down the garbage disposal unit.

Hebe quickly abandons the now-empty colander and plunges her hands into the gaping maw in a desperate attempt to retrieve some of the fast disappearing spaghetti. I see her working furiously, hands pumping like pistons but to no avail. The spaghetti has made good its escape.

The rest of the party are oblivious to the unfolding drama. Hebe turns, sees me watching her and gestures for me to join her in the kitchen.

“What am I to do?” She laments: “It’s a disaster. Some bugger out there” she says pointing to the dinning room “has the holy napkin and the spaghetti are like eels, probably swimming in search of the Pacific Ocean.”

I laugh: “Don’t worry regards the napkin. I have it. Do you have rice?”

‘Yes!” she cries, suddenly inspired. ‘The sauce is Bolognese. I’ll add chili, a can of red kidney beans and call it chili con carne.”

Handing me her empty glass she says: “Darling. Get me another Bolly. I feel an overwhelming urge to become quite inebriated.”

And as I pass her the brimming flute I regretfully suspect the chances of pudding making it to the table are now indeed slim.

“Bottoms up!” she raises her glass in salute, tosses back almost the entire contents, “Darling I’ve the most brilliant idea. Lets get the main course over with and bugger the pudding.”

Bugger indeed ! I think resentfully.

And then my mood brightens with the thought of a family size Kit-Kat waiting for me in the refrigerator at home.

“Cheers Hebe !”