Our Man in Paris, Part Three: Humiliation With My Big Mac, Please

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Another night in Paris, another evening of being awoken from deep slumber by the British.

You may remember the other night -- and if you don't, better study harder because there's a test on this material at the end of the week -- when my efforts to catch a few zzzs on the flight over were quashed by the igh volume ranting of the Englishman in the row behind me. Oh well, I thought, chalk it up to bad luck and too much duty-free booze for one of Her Majesty's royal subjects. Let it be. At the hotel -- that's where I'll saw some serious logs.

So I turned in at a pathetically early hour and went to work erasing my sleep debt. Everything was going according to plan -- the plan being a)close eyes; b)sleep; c) repeat step b -- when all of a sudden there was a tremendous racket outside my door.

"So what time should we meet in the morning?"

"Harold! What time do you want to meet?

"Do you want to grab breakfast?"

"Harold! Harold, listen up!"

It was a woman and her husband bidding adieu to their companions after a night on the town -- their companions, in this case, sounding an awful lot like the entire population of Manchester, England. That it was just after 3 a.m. only added to the charm.

They continued on in that vein for what seemed like hours -- what time they should meet, should they get breakfast, what should they get for breakfast, whether Harold was paying attention. The end result? I was wide-eyed as a barn owl, with only seven hours to go before Steve Jobs's keynote.

So that's twice in as many nights that I've been awakened by boisterous Britons. Remind me again which nation is supposed to be packed with rude, obnoxious loudmouths. Because on behalf of the ol' U.S. of A., I think I'm going to demand a recount.

It hasn't all been grim. I've finally found the one thing in Paris I can master -- riding the Metro. Paris may have the best subway system in the world: more extensive than San Francisco's, more efficient than New York's. Easy enough to use even if you don't speak the language.

You want to flee Harold and his loud-mouthed companions and get to the Palais de Congres? Hop aboard the No. Six train, friend. Be sure to transfer to the No. 1 at Charles de Gualle Etoile -- heading toward Grande Arche de la Defense and not Chateau de Vincennes, because if you do that, you're just asking for trouble. Exit at Porte Malliot, and you're there in time to watch Steve Jobs wow the crowd with his lime green laptop.

I could also tell you about how easy it is to take the No. 12 train to Porte de Versailles after transferring at Concorde -- but that's just bragging.

If I could just spend the entire week here riding the subway, I'd be in business. Unfortunately, for insignificant nuisances like food and water, I have to interact with others. Starvation and dehydration are beginning to look like attractive options next to the humiliation I have to endure ordering a simple meal.

A co-worker's wife tried to reassure me before I left that my limited knowledge of French -- OK, my complete inability to speak the language -- wouldn't be that big a deal. "My uncle and aunt went, and they didn't speak a word," she said. "Everyone in the service industries over there speaks English."

Everyone in the services industries who helped her aunt and uncle has apparently taken a vacation this week.

I've eaten twice at McDonald's in the last two days, or twice more than I would back in the U.S. This is not some ugly jingoism at work here -- "I'm only eating me some of that 'Merican food!" -- this is a basic survival tactic. You go into a McDonald's in France, mutter "Le Big Mac," and you can be pretty sure you'll wind up with two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. You go into a bistro and start pointing randomly at the menu, and next thing you know, you've ordered up 500 francs worth of veal.

At least, that was my working theory before today.

I was running back to the hotel to file a couple of stories when my stomach informed me that it had been 12 hours since I'd last eaten. So I ducked into McDonald's and ordered Menu Un -- a Big Mac, a cheeseburger, a soda and some fries which you better not refer to as french fries if you want the locals to like you.

The clerk shot out a stream of French words at me. Then she looked at me expectantly.

"Um," I said. "Coca-cola si vous plais?"

That apparently was the wrong answer. She fired off the same stream of French words at me, only faster and more agitated than before.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't understand."

And thus began our little pantomime, where the clerk pointed to every foodstuff in the store, and asked me if this is what I wanted to order. Apparently, she wanted to know whether I wanted the standard version of fries we've come to love here in America or the giant potato wedges they're apparently partial to here in Europe.

All that rigmarole at a McDonald's, for God's sake. This shouldn't be as hard as ordering plutonium.

By the way, a Big Mac in France tastes exactly like a Big Mac in the U.S., just in case you were curious. In fact, the burger that I had may well have been made in the U.S. and then flown over to Europe several days later.

Since the McDonald's offered neither convenience, ease of use, or digestible food, I decided dinner that night would be at an actual French restaurant. Sure, I'd have to point at the menu, and hope the waiters would play along, but if I'm going to feel shame over my ignorance of other languages, it had better be for something of greater culinary importance than a Quarter-Pounder with cheese.

So I ate at Le Saint-Vincente, a pretty good restaurant just down the street from my hotel. And it wasn't even that humiliating, even though the waiter didn't speak a lick of English and my French has actually gotten worse in the two days I've been here, and they ended up having to take the giant chalkboard menu down from the wall and carry it over to my table so that I could point at what I wanted instead of butcher the French tongue further.

I think I had chicken.

So if you ever find yourself in France, I can recommend Le Saint Vincent at 26 Rue de la Croix Nivert (which, we established yesterday is not pronounced Roo day lah Cwaugh Nee-Vert ). The wait staff will pretend that they don't mind if you speak English, they'll keep pouring you Beaujolais until you can't see straight, and they make a fine plate of chicken, or possibly game hen, I'm not sure which.

Fattened with fowl and buzzed by Beaujolais enough to forget my troubles, I returned to the hotel, and went to sleep. At 6 a.m. Thursday morning, a screaming baby in the next room over woke me up.

No word on whether the baby is British. But I have my suspicions.

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