We’d schlepped thirteen miles from one side of Paris to the outskirts on the other end, and the Tour de France by foot transformed us into les miserables.
We’d walked that far partially because my mother heard about a church that was somehow associated with Joan of Arc and assumed that’s where she was burned at the stake, and partially because we’d seen a flyer emblazoned with the Brazilian flag that advertised a Capoeira (Brazilian martial art) meeting. Since my brother Greg, a Capoeira enthusiast, was, and remains to this day, convinced that the best way to experience another culture was to experience how that culture experienced Brazilian culture, and since we’d soaked in enough museums, cathedrals, statues, basilicas, palaces, and tombs to weary a French historian, my mother decided to throw Greg a bone. A bone that landed thirteen miles away.
Both purposes were a bust. The first stop on our pilgrimage landed us before an uninteresting building far from any other tourists, in a seedy neighborhood that convinced me, if a Joan was murdered there, it wasn’t the saint– it was Joanie from le block who ran with the wrong crowd and was shot in gang related violence. Otherwise, if that truly was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning, we three and some French pigeons were the only living things in the world to know about it.
Greg and I collapsed into the lap of a Joan of Arc statue while our mom poked around the premises, sure she’d discover a plaque that would validate her conjecture. But all she found were cigarette butts and empty bottles of Bordeaux, because even French thugs have a sophisticated palate.
We continued our journey to the address indicated on the Capoeira flyer. A park. A park which, of course, was vacated. Either the ninth rule of fight club was that flyers should misinform, or the Capoeiristas fled when they saw our sorry asses approaching– feet dragging, mouths slack, eyes deadened, limping toward them like a trio of slow, but ravenous, zombies, straight out of Le Walking Morts.
Now, in the middle of Nowhere, France, after a fruitless expedition, dizzy and aching from exertion, our choices were: 1) Kill each other or 2) Eat. Since we were too tired for the former, we looked for a restaurant.
As recent college graduates, Greg and I were frugal, and when you convert frugal from American dollars to euros, you get a couple of two-bit Scrooge McCheapos. We managed to sniff out the most inexpensive eatery within hobbling distance.
A very charismatic Frenchman seated us in a very empty restaurant– which, considering the French appreciation for food, should have been our first red flag. But in our defense, we weren’t looking for red flags since flags waving in France tend to be white.
We’d been dining at these low-cost establishments for several days, and were well versed in the strategy of ordering a selection, knowing odds were at least one item would be inedible. So it didn’t take long for us to relay to the friendly waiter that we’d take the chicken, fish, and beef.
“Oh, no. You don’t want the beef. You want an extra order of chicken. The chicken is very good today. Very good,” the waiter said, his head bobbing as if his nodding affirmation might hypnotize us.
“Thanks for the recommendation, but we’ll take the beef,” we said.
“Really, believe me. Go with the second chicken. You don’t want the beef,” he said.
“Thanks. Again. But we’ll have the beef.”
“Okay, we don’t have any beef,” he said, his smile now strained.
While we waited for our food to arrive– two chickens and a fish– I asked our waiter to direct me to the bathroom.
“You don’t need the bathroom. It’s better if you don’t need the bathroom,” he said, his smile so fixed and forced it seemed his face was seconds from exploding.
The bathroom was downstairs at the bottom of a long, narrow, and steep staircase– the type Indiana Jones might have descended carrying a torch, a torch which would have come in handy considering the area wasn’t powered by electricity. The only modicum of light was the flickering of a votive candle at the end of the tunnel, whose flame danced on the bathroom sink in the catacomb below. A blind person would have navigated the space better, guided by his heightened sense of smell.
But the blind man’s heightened senses wouldn’t have served him later, when the food arrived.
The quality of the food was immaterial, beside the point. We were so hungry and tired that commenting on, let alone complaining about, the leathery meats or flavorless sides would have been as absurd as a Rottweiler pausing before his bowl to request a pinch of salt. We ate, not for enjoyment, but for survival.
It was Greg’s turn to pay, but he was out of cash. Luckily the window of the restaurant displayed stickers for Visa and American Express, so he handed the waiter a credit card.
“Oh no. Believe me, you want to pay in cash,” the waiter said.
“No, thanks. I’m going to use this credit card.”
“It’s much better if you pay in cash. Trust me. It’s better,” the waiter said, insisting.
“No, really. I’d prefer credit card,” Greg said.
“Okay, our credit card machine is broken.”