Oh, young people. So full of energy, so convinced they know so much about the world, so… loud. Why must this girl from Poland arrive late every day only to dominate every conversation, every mock debate, every role playing exercise we are subject to at the Accord Ecole de Langue Francais? Why must La Polonaise, as I like to call her, a formidable figure of 20 years whose brashness I attribute in part to the fact that she spent much of her childhood in Manhattan, pronounce her Rs as though she is trying to cough up something more than a few words? Why must the young Swede constantly interrupt the timid Japanese mother of 3? And why must I discuss, in French, the death penalty, homelessness, and the status of abortion rights around the world with any of them?
The truth is that I love the class (also, I’m 33). But sometime during the third hour today I realized that I was not going to get a word in edgwise about le mariage gay and started thinking about what I would have for lunch. I decided to go to Chartier.
There are people who recommend Chartier for the food, but most will tell you to go for the room. It is a grand example of a bygone era, a time capsule of fin-de-siecle Paris left unchanged and, possibly, undusted since 1896. There is often a queue out the door.
But today there was no line, only a handful of tourists, and plenty of bona fide French people who seemed to be regulars. After a morning of vocabulary and grammar I found myself lunching alone but in good company. It is standard practice at Chartier to seat different parties at the same table, and I was placed across from an elderly man whose son runs marathons all around the world and a woman who was deep into a book about les pierres précieuses — precious gems. On the other side of the coat rack was an older English couple who live in France, and a Parisian man of about 50 who wore excellent glasses and had the generosity to call me a francophone.
The choucroute was not disappointing, but that’s only because I thought it would be much, much worse. Instead of terrible it was only on the bad end of mediocre. A pile of frites, under-fried and pale, remained untouched on the amateur gemologists plate. The fish before the Englishman was gray with a grayer sauce. The bread was supermarket quality and a crème aux marrons was so sweet it made my teeth hurt. But I ate it, and spoke French with strangers. The old man saw that my wine glass was empty and shared his half bottle of Muscadet.
The food was bad but the meal was not.
Several years ago I found great comfort in a copious plate of choucroute garnie at a venerable left-bank brasserie. I have been thinking about going back, to see if that mound of pork and cabbage is as good as I remember, but I’m afraid I would be disappointed. Hunger is the best sauce, after all, and after walking from the Ile St. Louis to the Eiffel Tour and back that day I was certainly hungry. Hungry and sad. Strolling alone along the quais I was trying hard to stop an impending heartbreak, the grand letdown of a trip that was not going according to plan.
Still, I’m pretty sure it was delicious, hungry or not. The bacon is what I remember most. I left remains of the various sausages and ham, each one tasty but nothing like the sweet, rich pork belly that I finished off slowly, in an effort to make it last. A few people stared, proper ladies and waiters alike, wondering about this girl eating alone, drinking a second glass of wine. I devoured a creamy caramel parfait for dessert and lingered over coffee.
But if I had to choose one of these meals to relive (and thankfully I don’t) I would be at a loss. Today’s lunch of substandard fare and warm strangers or yesterday’s solitary feast? Based only on the food, the choice would be clear, but sometimes a meal is about more than eating. Surely, when all is said and done, I’d rather have memories of people than of food.
Then again, sometimes the best dining companion is oneself.
Chartier, 7 Rue Fbg. Montmartre, Paris 75009, +33 (0)1 42 46 86 85 No reservations. website