By Senior Writer Neale Orinick
Ah, Paris. A world-renowned city full of architectural wonders, exquisite cuisine, art, and bad coffee.
Bestselling cookbook author, professional chef, and baker David Lebovitz’s book The Sweet Life In Paris is an eye-opening look into what it’s really like to live in the “City of Lights”. Interspersed with recipes for salads to pork chops, chocolate spice cake to tapenade, Lebovitz writes of his time as an American in Paris. He offers helpful tips about learning the language, going to the doctor, grocery shopping, and why the hot chocolate is spectacular. But he says never trust any coffee labeled French roast.
In Paris, American tourists are easy to spot. They are the ones in sweatpants, Bermuda shorts, and flip-flops. A Parisian would never be caught in public in such slovenly attire, even if just to run the trash down to the compactor.
“I distinctly remember the exact moment when I became a Parisian,” Lebovitz starts his story.
“...the exact moment happened just a few months after I arrived in Paris. I was spending a lazy afternoon in my apartment lounging around in faded sweatpants and a loose tattered sweatshirt, my ideal outfit for doing nothing in particular. By late afternoon, I’d finally mustered the energy to take the elevator downstairs to the inner courtyard of my apartment building to empty the garbage.”
The whole process should have only required a few minutes of his time but before he could set one foot out his door:
“So I extracted myself from the sofa, shaved, changed into a real pair of pants, tucked in a clean wrinkle-free shirt, and slipped on a pair of shoes and socks before heading toward the door with my little plastic sac (French for sack or bag) of the poubelle (trash).”
Lebovitz is the first to admit, Parisians have earned their reputation as rude and haughty. He quickly learned there is no such thing as “the customer is always right.” In fact, in France, especially Paris, the customer is never right, even if they are. A customer who wants anything should not cop an attitude or demand to speak to the manager lest they desire being summarily tossed out of that particular place of business.
Here are some helpful translations from the Sweet Life In Paris if you don’t speak the language.
When the French say non or no what they really mean is “convince me.”
When you attempt to return a broken or defective item to a store they say “it’s not broken,” which translates to “convince me.”
When they say, “the restaurant is completely full,” the correct translation is, “we already have enough Americans in here.”
When the French say, “we don’t have anymore,” this translates to, “we have lots but they are in the back and I don’t feel like getting them.”
Once one figures out to translate these common expressions into what they actually mean it is possible you will survive a trip to Paris.
It is worth the time to overcome the language barrier for some of the best food in the world, especially chocolate. As a connoisseur of le chocolat, Lebovitz packs plenty of delectable recipes in his book, most simple to make with easy-to-find ingredients. He also directs you to the best hot chocolate in Paris and how to order it; Viennois, with a pile of rich whipped cream on top, or sans Chantilly, straight, no creamy topping.
Lebovitz warns that the whipped cream in Paris is very rich, not like the air-fluffed chemical canned or tub version most Americans are used to. To find hot chocolate “to die for,” though, you might just have to be actually prepared to die for it as the cafe with what he claims has the best hot chocolate in Paris is located in a particularly treacherous area of the city where the sidewalks are narrow and city buses speed down the busy streets and alleys missing pedestrians by mere inches.
As for the coffee, Lebovitz is not a fan. In fact, most Parisians drink tea or make their own at home rather than trust it to be made in a cafẽ or restaurant. It’s rumored that in some places they reboil the grounds.
“It’s almost impossible to find a drinkable cup of coffee in Paris: the coffee here is among the worst I’ve ever had.”
To overcome the lack of good coffee, the author buys a bulky Italian-made (not French) espresso machine and enrolls in the Universitã del Caffẽ’s espresso-making school at Illy Caffẽ in Italy. Yes, he left the country in his quest for good coffee.
“But let’s say you don’t have a coffee machine or don’t want to risk the wrath of an unsympathetic waiter, how do you order coffee in Paris? If you just say, ‘I’ll have a coffee’ the waiter is going to bring you a small cup of espresso. And don’t correct me. In France, it’s spelled with an x. I know. They can’t even get the spelling right.”
If you don’t want a “tiny cup of brown sludge,” order a cafẽ au lait or coffee with milk. A section of this chapter on coffee includes a detailed explanation of the types of coffee drinks in Paris, the correct terms for ordering, and what you will get. If you are a coffee drinker and planning a trip to France be sure to take notes from this handy glossary of terms.
With the world slowly starting to open back up again and if you want to immerse yourself in another culture, now is the time to go to Paris. Flights remain affordable and hotels are eager for American guests to fill up their rooms. Armed with the tips and tricks to enjoying Paris as the Parisians do from The Sweet Life in Paris you’ll be dressed to blend in with the locals. The best part of this is no one will know you are an American until you open your mouth to order coffee.
Neale Orinick is a Denver-area writer, social media strategist, and book fanatic.