When I travel, I quickly adapt to the eating habits of the people around me.
- In Italy, I ate a pastry and café latte for breakfast nearly every day, at a place they call a Bar. In the US, I might have eaten a Luna Bar, which I would have picked up from CVS.
- During my short stay in Spain, I ate dinner after ten PM. In the US, I ate at 6:30, with a snack around 10.
- In Nepal, I waited until eleven for my first real meal, when I would eat a mountain of white rice, lentils, and pickled or fermented vegetables. I ate another mountain of white rice at dinner. In the United States, I ate no rice, and if I did, it was brown.
- On my recent trip to France, I ate white bread. Multiple pieces of it, with my meal. I ate dessert after lunch and after dinner, even if just a few bites. I had a café (espresso) at the end of lunch. In the US, I rarely eat dessert after a meal; that would be too much. Only in between meals. I rarely eat bread. I have coffee only in the morning or in between meals, and it is about 10 liquid ounces bigger than an espresso.
Since the first time I ever traveled to Europe, somehow I trusted the eating habits more. I relinquished the need to control how I ate. I became a follower of how they ate. I have been trying to patchwork the wisdoms I have learned to eat in a better way in the United States. Sometimes, right after retuning from abroad, the changes in eating habits just happen, but they usually fade back to the status quo after a little while.
This is a topic—eating habits in France or Italy versus America—that is hard to pinpoint and therefore difficult to write about. It is hard to talk or write about because it is based on feelings and experiences, rather than statistics or disciplined research. Still, the feelings I have about the differences in eating cultures—not just what people eat, but about the habits around eating–are very strong.
So for now, until I can present better data with which to draw conclusions, I will share a little moment, a vignette. It is the observation of the evening routine of the French men whom I stayed with in Paris, the roommates of my friend whom I went to visit. But before that: some moments when I realized my eating habits did not fit in with the French ones, when I caused some people to be truly perplexed.
One day, while making tea, Antoine said to me, “you don’t end the meal with something sweet?” Antoine is a young-professional, a graduate of business school, a French man living in Paris.
“No, I almost never have dessert at the end of a meal in the United States,” I replied, thinking how often I decline to order dessert in a restaurant. “I often have sweets in between meals,” I added, remembering those cookies from the Scottish Bakehouse, or an afternoon pastry and coffee.
“What?!” Apparently, this seemed crazy.
Another day, sitting at the restaurant with Anthony, also a French, young professional living in Paris, I ordered a café crème (coffee with steamed milk, like a latte) before anything else.
“But, are you going to eat?” the waitress asked, turning to Anthony in her confusion, perhaps for some cultural translation.
“Oui,” he replied, “après.” After. In France, it seems, you don’t eat a meal after drinking a coffee. It is the other way around. And even after a meal, unless it’s breakfast, one would probably not have a café crème, but just a café or an expresso.
I am sure these “rules” or manners of the table are not in place just to make anyone who doesn’t follow them feel like an outsider. No, I believe they have more to do with protecting the stomach and the appetite, and not ruining the natural order of a meal. Perhaps there is a more anatomically correct way to eat and a less anatomically correct way. Certain foods upset the stomach if eaten together with other foods. Certain foods may taint the taste buds, like coffee, or fill the stomach, like milk.
I used to have such fear of appearing too American in France. Once I was craving a cocal cola before dinner. I just had to have one. I was not a child, though, and I knew how it would look. Oh, the American wants her coca cola. Does she want fries with that? I imagined the waiter snickering with his other waiter friends. Well, I ordered it anyway. And our service for the remainder of the meal was terrible…though I’m not sure the coke had anything to do with it.
The point is, I have changed. Now, I believe, one should do what she wants, even if in Paris. If I want a café crème before dinner, I will have one. If I want cheese before, and not after, the meal, I will have that too. But I am starting to understand that there may be good reasons for the customs, although it would still be nice not to be looked at like an alien for breaking tradition!
Weekday Dinner In an Apartment in Paris….
The young professionals came home from work late, around nine o’clock. They looked sleek in their suits. Slim. The two were arriving from their respective jobs, jobs they have kept since getting a Masters in business and studying abroad in the U.S.
When they got home, they changed into something more comfortable: form-fitting, dark jeans, a button down shirt, or a sweater of that equestrian style that is so a la mode right now, with little leather patches at the elbows. Sometimes, one or the other took to ironing shirts for work.
They took turns preparing dinner in their small, Parisian kitchen, which also housed a washing machine. Sometimes, one prepared the meal for the both of them. They lit the burner manually, with a lighter. The lighter never got lost. It was meticulously returned to the pocket of the apron, not the blue one but the white one. One of the young men always protected his clothes with that white apron with black stripes as he cooked, which made him look simultaneously domestic and adorable, careful and tidy.
The food was simple: a seared piece of meat and some canned vegetables, like peas and carrots; a bowl of curry and rice prepared courtesy of manufacturer and macedoine de legumes . A quick sear, a flash in the pan, all set.
By ten o’clock, the two appeared in the living room, one with his apron, and set their trays down on the table. The television was playing French news or a reality show or, perhaps it was Angelina Jolie, moving her lips in English, while the words came out in French.
And do you know what was on their trays? A whole, three-course meal. A plate with their main dish, the hot food. A baguette, which they had picked up on the way home, from the boulangerie or the Monoprix. Mixed lettuce in a bag, which usually contained radicchio and some greens. Olive oil and vinegar to dress the salad. Water to drink. And dessert, either yogurt or cheese or fruit. There was a sequence, always a sequence. First, he ate the hot food, with the baguette. Then the salad: just mixed lettuce with olive oil and vinegar. Then dessert.
Occasionally, there would appear a McDo (McDonald’s) box in lieu of the tray, but it was the exception to the norm.
They watched the TV. They talked. They ate. Around eleven thirty or so, they cleaned the kitchen, always, and went to bed without a single dish in the sink. The apron was returned to its hanger, the lighter inevitably inside the pocket.