The reasons behind this trip are their own story, but what is important to know is, no matter what Texas tells you about European size comparisons, France is big. France is big enough that when you land in Paris at noon with plans to be in Provance that evening, you will end up at your hotel tired, hungry, and nursing leg cramps from the inevitably too-small sub compact you rented at the airport. You will also be nursing an elevated heart rate if you ask my father to drive said car from Paris to your small town destination in the south of France where everything is a one way or a roundabout and speed limits are for the weak. And when you do arrive to your hotel, it will be late enough that the only restaurant in town that is open doesn’t cater to tourists, particularly American ones who speak a minimum of actual French.
Which is a part of how my mother established herself as a vegetable.
Partly it was the exhaustion, but also some blame falls on my Nana. Because, you see, my Great Aunt Anne, whom I call Nana, had very proudly told my mother not to worry about ordering, because Nana had learned the French word for ‘vegetarian’ and would order for her. Everyone, my mother, my father, and myself, all looked dubious about this, as finding good, culturally specific food that contains no animal bits in it is notoriously hard when traveling and we all knew it. Most of the places we’d gone as a family lived by the motto “what do you eat when you don’t eat meat?” Mom has been a vegetarian for my whole life, and usually deals with foreign cuisine by making an exception. She ate things with meat in Mexico and Scotland as a part of understanding the culture. But not there, not in that tiny upscale diner of a French restaurant.
Maybe calling it a diner is uncharitable, but I know of no other type of restaurant where subway tiles are the standard wall covering, menus are written on a chalkboard and it is assumed that by the time you sit you will know what you are ordering, and rust on the table is part of the charm. At any rate, the advertised options were Menu One with Beef, and Menu Two with Fish. The French, I later learned, did not do individual item ordering, you chose your main dish and assumed the chef knew what he was doing well enough to pair the right sides and salads and such. For the same reason, there were no salt or pepper shakers on the table. We sat at our table with all the grace of flour sacks dumped into a mill’s storehouse, our bodies aching and our bellies rumbling. Our waitress arrived moments later, blonde, smiling, and with the subtle fear in her eyes I learned to translate as “please, merciful lord, let them not be Americans” years prior when visiting Mexico. Nana, armed with her new knowledge of French dietary vocabulary, insisted on ordering for my mother first.
What seemed to the pre-teen mind to be a short eternity later, Nana was still trying to convey “nothing that was once an animal” to the waitress, who was a great sport about the whole thing. There were hand gestures more appropriate to orchestral conducting being used. Over and over the repetition of the same word that had not made sense to the waitress the first forty times.
“Veg-ee-tar-IAN,” Nana tried, no different inflection aside from a growing frustration.
“Anne, it’s fine, I’ll ask for a side plate, or get Menu Two and just eat around the fish, it’s not a big deal,” my mother told her, trying desperately to speed the proceedings so that her daughter didn’t start chewing the artfully distressed vinyl seats. It might be worth noting that my mother is fluent in French, and if there were a word for “doesn’t eat meat” in the language that wasn’t the English word with a Pepe Le Pew accent, she would have known it most likely.
“Linda, it’s a matter of principal,” my Nana returned. Obviously, she had no idea what damage could be wrought by a tired, hungry, cranky ten-year-old who just underwent a transatlantic flight and eight-hour drive in a clown-sized car. She also was a bit too invested in making herself fully understood when we all would have been fine with pidgin French and charades. “She needs to know you don’t eat meat!”
Suddenly, the light descended from the heavens, the angelic chorus began singing, and an old-fashioned European lightbulb spontaneously materialized and lit up in absence of electric power over our waitress’ head. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and in my hunger weakened state, did not particularly care that it was an oncoming train of awkwardness. I could tell that the truth had been revealed unto the gatekeeper of food in some fundamental way, and soon actually edible things would be placed on the table and I could fill the gnawing void of my gut.
“OH!” she exclaimed, delighted beyond measure. I can only assume that like in America, waitresses in France do not actually like spending large chunks of their late shift standing beside tables where older ladies in cashmere turtlenecks and chignon hairdo’s shout the same unintelligible word at them over and over again. Her relief was palpable. I waited for the great wisdom she had received from the universe to be laid out before us, hopefully accompanying the bread basket or an appetizer plate.
“Madame is a vegetable!” she announced, so proud to have finally understood the puzzle laid out by my Nana’s insistence that languages she doesn’t speak and that have existed for thousands of years conform to her expectations and standards.
“Yes,” my mother, the exhausted vegetarian in question agreed. “Madame is a vegetable.”