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December 2, 2011 9:59 pm
Few workers in the City regard lunch as a trivial affair,” wrote P.G. Wodehouse in Psmith in the City, his 1910 novel about life at a London bank. “Conversation in city offices deals, in the morning, with what one is going to have for lunch, and in the afternoon with what one has had for lunch.”
At lunchtime in the City 100 years later, you generally see people eating what appear to be plastic bags, but what, on closer inspection, turn out to be sandwiches. Lunch is dead. But it isn’t in Paris. I’ll have lived in this alien city for 10 years come February, and I can say honestly, without being pretentious, that I’ve stayed largely because of lunch.
I know the topic of eating out in Paris is well-tried to the point of parody. Here is Woody Allen, for instance: “He liked La Coupole because it was always bright and crowded, and he could usually get a table – quite a difference from his apartment, where it was dark and gloomy and where his mother, who lived there too, always refused to seat him.” But the topic is well-tried for a reason. Lunch in Paris is often a glimpse of perfect happiness.
By now I’ve worked out the essential elements. For me, the first is solitude. As a married person with children living in a cramped city, loneliness isn’t the problem. Rather, you’re always drowning in loved ones. Happiness is a table for one with something to read. I don’t go as far as the man I know who says he’s happiest when eating dinner alone with a book about war, but nearly. As I once had to tell my wife: “Nothing you could say could be as interesting as this article that I’m reading.” (After some thought, she offered the correct response: “I’m pregnant.” Luckily it was a joke.)
This being Paris, there are perhaps 20 restaurants within a five-minute stagger of my office. All are packed at lunchtime. Sometimes I eat Italian, or Japanese, but usually I find a simple French place where they let me read without pushing me to pay homage to the wonders on my plate. I gather there’s a long-running debate about the decline of French food. I hear there are more Michelin-starred restaurants in London now, or perhaps in Kiev, than in Paris. Apparently French cooking is “stuck in a rut” and in need of “bold new flavours”. I don’t care. The French have been serving confit de canard and coq au vin for centuries. Over time, they’ve perfected their methods. Here, normal restaurants are often brilliant.
Sometimes I’ll leave a restaurant almost laughing at how good lunch was, yet for the kitchen it was routine, something it has done for ever. A restaurant on the same spot in 1911 or 1811 probably did it for ever too. Here’s the writer Marmontel describing a meal he ate down the road from me about 250 years ago: “An excellent soup, a side of beef, a thigh of boiled chicken oozing with grease; a little dish of fried, marinated artichokes or of spinach; really fine Cressane pears; fresh grapes, a bottle of old Burgundy and the best Moka coffee.” He didn’t eat it in a restaurant. He ate it in the Bastille prison.
Some things have changed: today, Marmontel probably wouldn’t have had a whole bottle. I once saw a graph showing British and French trends in alcohol consumption in recent decades. The French line started high and went steadily downwards. The British line started low and went steadily upwards. A few years back, they crossed. I’ve seen the average lunchtime in my neighbourhood shorten commensurately, from nearly 90 minutes a decade ago to under an hour now.
Even without wine, the perfect end to lunch is a snooze. That’s the joy of working alone. I stumble back to my office, drop on to the sofa, and 20 minutes later I’m up and happy.
In Paris, lunch is the compensation. The hardest thing about this city is the unfriendliness, the non-violent aggression, which strangely gets tougher to bear the longer you live here. It’s the motorbikes speeding along the pavement, the shopkeepers repelling intruders, the complaining neighbours, the constant sense that you’re breaking some secret code of etiquette.
The waiters in my restaurants generally offer a polite, “Ça va?”, before we get stuck into the order. But one day last winter, the lady from Shanghai who runs the nearest sushi joint had a request. Could I spray-paint the words, “Joyeux Noël” (“Happy Christmas”) on to her restaurant’s window? I guessed she couldn’t write Roman script. I took the can and sprayed. She and I surveyed my work with pride. It looked like proper French. But a younger Chinese waitress piped up: I’d forgotten the dots on Noël. I added them. Then the Chinese gave me a free green tea. That’s all the community I need. I read my book and was happy.
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