Friday, August 29, 2008


We've found a pizza place the next village over; you drive back behind the Mairie and the local Michelin one-star restaurant, past the memorial to the war dead, and it's tucked in next to a real estate office. Two rooms, one of them with the kitchen opening into it--and it's not some LA open-kitchen MBA-designed see-the-chef-set-things-on-fire kind of place, it's a place with a large hole in the wall between the kitchen and the dining room because it gets hot in the kitchen and the cuisinier wants some air.

It's called L'Éléphant for reasons that remain mysterious, except that there are three or four elephant figurines lined up on top of the wine refrigerator and the menu stand. It seems equally likely that the restaurant is called The Elephant because the owner had some elephant figurines that he had gotten from a great-aunt and his wife didn't want them cluttering up the family room anymore, so she killed two birds with one stone--naming the restaurant and clearing off a shelf--or that the owner took a dare: the most ridiculous name for a pizzeria that his boules buddies could come up with. And then, once the sign was painted, they started giving him elephants. In any event, there's no elephant on the menu; nor are there any dishes that seem to have originated in places with elephants as long as you don't count the National Zoo and the pizza stand opposite the Elephant Pavilion.

These are the kinds of conversations that C and I have when we are waiting for our pizzas to come. We always sit at the same table, which we suspect is designated as the foreigners table, in the corner just across from the kitchen. From there we have a good view of the front door and can watch the extended families coming in to get their Friday night marguerites and reines and quatre saisons. We can see the owner, too, busy at the oven, and we can speculate as to whether the lone waitress is related to him by blood or marriage or neither. It doesn't matter; they both seem to know everyone who comes in, even, after a visit or two, us.

Last time we were there C decided to depart from our usual quarter carafe of vin rouge (I know; we really should cut back) and order a beer. There were two choices on the menu: Heineken, in a bottle, and Kronenbourg 1664, on tap. He chose the latter. Ordinarily, that would be the end of this story. He would have placed his order, had a beer, and we would have gone on with our evening. But not so in la belle France.

As with so many things in France, sometimes a thing is known by the word on the label and sometimes it's known by another word entirely. Take--for instance--the Kronenbourg 1664. Sometimes it's listed on menus as Kronenbourg; sometimes, as 1664; sometimes, both. Are they always the same beer? Probably. Without some serious study, though, it's difficult to say. It matters because, having decided to order one, C had to figure out how to identify it, what name to call it.

My endorsement was early and strong: order a Kronenbourg, never mind about the date. C had higher ambitions, though. He wanted to order it by the date: mille six cent soixante-quatre, one thousand six hundred sixty-four. We practiced it til the waitress came. Mille six cent soixante-quatre. Mille six cent soixante-quatre. Try saying it fast, and casually. I'll have a mille six cent soixante-quatre. You can try it in English if you want to: oh, yeah, and I'll have a one thousand six hundred sixty-four, frosted mug if you've got one. It's difficult to sound nonchalant.

He had gotten it down pretty well when the waitress finished giving the bises to the newest clients and came over to take our order. I ordered my usual reine--ham, mushrooms, olives, cheese--and a glass of house red. C ordered his quatre saisons--artichokes, mushrooms, olives, peppers, and, of course, ham--and then he said: Je voudrais une bière, un mille six cent soixante-quatre. He acquited himself of it pretty well, I thought, especially the bit around the x.

The waitress glanced at him over her pad. Excusez-moi? The way she said it was the French equivalent of, Come again?

He smiled a little sheepishly. Un mille six cent soixante-quatre? This time he ended on an up note, and I could see him thinking that maybe just saying Kronenbourg would have been easier.

She looked at him for a long moment, pencil poised a centimeter over the paper. We both had time to wonder if C had just reminded her of her first husband, the biker dude who left her broke and pregnant, or if he had just accidentally told her that he was an agent of the revenue service and would be needing to see the books. Then her eyes cleared as light dawned.

Ahh! she said. Un seize soixante-quatre, a sixteen sixty-four!

We all laughed--foreigners, they are so funny when they are speaking themselves the French, non?--and off she went. She brought the beer back a couple of minutes later and set it down with a flourish in front of C. Voilà, un seize soixante-quatre, monsieur, and she gave us another smile.

Now we know what it's called, and even I, who am not a big fan of beer, order it sometimes. Pour moi, un seize soixante-quatre, s'il vous plaît, and every time I do, I expect to catch sight of myself in the mirror and see someone impossibly chic and confident, maybe Coco Chanel, looking back.

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