This is a story of a personal calamity, which like all true personal calamities begins with exuberance.
On Monday we were to dine at one of the great tables of France, a Himalaya of a restaurant, so exclusive, so dignified, that merely to secure a reservation is a triumph of the will. This is the restaurant called Jamin. Its proprietor, M. Robuchon, is said to accept reservations only from persons with French names, speaking the French language. Negotiations were conducted through third parties, commencing two months before our arrival in Paris, and concluded just before Christmas. Lunch for five, Monday. Our host said, "Arrive on time, and arrive hungry."
It would be a high point of our journey.
On Sunday we went to look at pictures. The idea was to arrive early at the Picasso Museum, driving from the Left Bank to the Marais district, through a warren of narrow streets to 5 Rue de Thorigny, the Ho tel Sale', a 17th-century mansion restored last year to house the master's work. Five blocks away we noticed a few pedestrians and as we drew closer, more pedestrians, walking quickly, a few even running through the silent streets. The Picasso is the hottest ticket in town and by the time we arrived there were noisy crowds at the entrance. My wife said the scene reminded her of the ominous incremental gathering of Hitchcock's birds.
The museum is a wonder, but much too much to get on a single visit. We stayed 90 minutes, and at the end were exhausted. In many ways the last room -- containing the complicated painting from Picasso's last years -- is the most exhilarating, as I suppose the end of the war is more exhilarating than the beginning. But if you had been there from the firing of the first shot, then you would be too weary to appreciate the subtleties of the conclusion, owing to shell shock. You would be relieved as opposed to exhilarated.
We exited the Ho tel Sale' somewhat depressed. We had met a friend there, and now we three stood in the street in a snowstorm, huge white flakes that on another occasion would have seemed picturesque. My solution to blue periods of this kind is to have a long lunch, something nutritious and not too demanding, perhaps a glass of the wine of the country, and a digestif for administrative purposes.
So we walked to the Brasserie Flo and after a suitable wait settled in. My wife and our friend ordered a dozen belons, and the sole. I settled for a dozen escargot and the choucroute, Flo's specialty. We commenced with a carafe of the house Riesling, then became so animated in our conversation we ordered another almost without thinking, and a third.
We were very jolly and when at the end of the meal the waiter suggested a marc, I agreed without delay. Two Armagnacs and a marc, several coffees, and general agreement that while today's meal was superb, tomorrow's would be exceptional. Flo is such a cheerful place of the Belle Epoque, when it is crowded there is a kind of avalanche of conversation, and much laughter. Nothing exclusive or dignified about Flo. It's a happy Alp of a restaurant, with no need for oxygen at the higher elevations.
We concluded the meal at 5, took leave of our friend and decided to walk back to the hotel. It was very cold, but we were very warm, so we walked slowly, ambling, breathing the crisp snowy air. In late December, Paris still wore its holiday clothes, a beautiful middle-aged woman trying to look festive, and succeeding, perhaps not realizing that her natural beauty was unrivaled, her unadorned festivity superlative; so the effect was -- a little careless, and commercial. Still, the children liked it, and we did too.
We walked for almost three hours, taking a meandering route back to the Rue Dauphine, passing several pretty squares that I had never visited before, or had visited but had never noticed. We arrived at the Pont Neuf -- Christo's white wrapping now vanished -- and crossed the river, the wind blowing cold and damp. But the look of Paris up and down the river canceled the shivers. We stood in the middle of the bridge and watched a tour boat and thought how agreeable it would be inside, a heated cabin and something warm to drink, looking up at the city from the Seine.
Thoroughly chilled, and very tired, we hurried across the bridge and I made my calamitous mistake, an error whose consequences we would suffer for 36 hours. We passed a smoky bistro, filled with red-faced men and ample women. A rosy glow within, smiling waiters in white aprons. There in the corner, the fellow with the beard -- wasn't that Ernest Hemingway scribbling in a notebook? I said, "Let's go in here, honey, and have a plate of oysters."
They were the dour kidney-shaped claires, not the lovable heart-shaped belons. They tasted wonderfully clean and metallic going down, though not coming up. The remainder of the night was a horror; no details, please. The facilities in our hotel room, as the British would say, were fully booked -- all night long. We got perhaps two hours of sleep, and when we staggered to our feet in the morning, a drab, surly day, a gray flannel suit of a day, we remembered about Jamin. "Arrive on time, and arrive hungry."
We regrouped. I thought of us, my wife and I, as the survivors of Napoleon's great army deep in the Russian heartland in the murderous winter of 1812. We had strength only to retreat, our horses dead, our ammunition exhausted. Sniper fire every minute of every day.
We set out early from our hotel, for there was no telling how long this journey would take. We walked to the Seine, and again across the Pont Neuf -- not so damned charming now, I thought of it as a sullen little viaduct across a tedious stream not so different from the Merrimack at Lawrence, Mass.
We were fortified with several French pharmaceuticals, vicious yellow pills that smelled of eucalyptus, brown capsules that went down like Goodyear blimps. One of these medications produced little explosions in the stomach, followed by damp burps. Internally, things were in revolt, though I believed we presented an acceptable face to the world, a stoic authority. Botha, perhaps, or Thatcher.
We arrived at our destination, Rue Longchamp in the conservative 16th arrondissement.
Jamin bears about the same relation to Flo as the dining room of the Ritz to Jimmy's Harborside. Various shades of pink, a subdued atmosphere, the clink of crystal and flatware, a murmur as opposed to a shout.
Our host, whom I shall call Y. in order to spare him reprisals, immediately observed that something was amiss. He is a foreign correspondent, a specialist in the affairs of le monde troisie'me, no stranger to pestilence, famine, disease and death, and all the accompanying physical symptoms.
He said, "You are unwell."
My wife bravely said, "We are fine."
Y. said, "He doesn't look fine," meaning me.
It was useless to try to flimflam Y. In 30 years of writing journalism he had been flimflammed by experts, rarely successfully. My wife conceded that we had eaten incautiously, oysters in the Rue Dauphine.
"You picked a great time for it," Y. said.
We took our places, stage center in the small room. The service was immaculate, the waiter even essaying a few cordial phrases in English. This was very hospitable, and perhaps unprecedented. When I declined a pre-lunch aperitif, Y. was alarmed. He had never seen me do this and, indeed, to the best of my recollection, I had never done it before. His alarm equalled my embarrassment. I announced that I would wait for the wine.
Ordering at a restaurant such as Jamin is a meticulous undertaking. It is reminiscent of a careful author checking the galleys of his book, the punctuation, the spelling, the facts; all these are important, but the careful author will be more attentive to the structure of his book. Should these paragraphs be reversed? Is the first chapter actually the last chapter? All this should be done before the book reaches galley stage, but seeing the manuscript in cold type often gives the author a fresh view. Just so with the great tables of France.
We had discussed the menu for days, the various specialties of M. Robuchon, poissons or viand, fish or flesh; and which fish; and which flesh. But seeing the menu in our hands provoked rethinking. There were an a la carte menu, a three-course prix fixe and a five-course prix fixe. There were cod and bass and langoustine, and veal, lamb and steak, all of it accompanied by sauces fit to kill. My wife and I looked at each other across the glittering table, and then simultaneously to the rear of the room, a narrow passageway leading to the toilettes.
For a moment, sitting there upright as a magistrate, I realized I had in my power the ability to create one of the great scandals in the history of French gastronomy. At a stroke, I could confirm all the lies that the French had told about the Americans and that the Americans had told about themselves -- Natty Bumppos sur la table, an oafish, coarse race, indifferent to refined sensibilities, not gentil. I teetered in my chair, eyes closed, contemplating the possibilities. With luck, my scandal would make the split page of Le Monde, perhaps with a photograph of four score and ten French gastronomes, male and female, hurtling into the Rue Longchamp as from a German terrorist.
The moment passed.
Y. was speaking to me, suggesting that I allow him to order for me since my knowledge of haute cuisine, as opposed to the cuisine of Brasserie Flo or any number of midwestern steakhouses, was -- incomplete. Weakly, I agreed.
"Fish or flesh?" he asked.
Since this was the most important decision I would make that day, or any day in the foreseeable future, I paused before replying. "Fish," I said at last, hoping for a fish as mild and smooth as pure'ed carrots.
The matter of the wine was settled with dispatch, and presently a Montrachet arrived. This Montrachet was the color of honey and as old as my son. The waiter poured it as if it were nitroglycerine, and we all sat back and beamed at one another. I believe in the restorative power of grape and for a chaotic moment, as I scrutinized the balloon of wine, I thought -- well, I thought dat ole black magic would work its spell for me once again.
The Montrachet tasted like sawdust. It rolled and heaved in my mouth and hung there, like a great woody bubble, neither rising nor falling. Someone asked me a question and I nodded pleasantly, elevating my eyebrows in what I hoped was a nonchalant gesture, a Gallic gesture of confidence and equilibrium.
"You son of a bitch," Y. said, "if you are sick in this room -- "
The wine went down without incident. I smiled, tears squirting to my eyes. I knew I was sweating, and when I turned again to glance at my wife I saw that her distress was even greater than mine. Her face was white and green. She looked like a gin-and-tonic. Nothing like a sick wife to take your mind off your own troubles. I watched her struggle, as one would watch an unsteady aerialist; when she offered a weak smile, I knew that she was all right, momentarily.
No one noticed our byplay, for at that moment the first course arrived, five plates covered with heavy silver hats. Five waiters hovered behind our chairs, five hands grasping the handles of the hats. On signal, they tore them away with a flourish. Voila! Ahhhh, everyone said. The waiters looked from face to face, accustomed as they were to expressions of rapture -- a miser contemplating a Krugerrand, or an old roue' a teen-age girl.
They were itty-bitty pieces of langoustine en croute. My wife and I ate what we could, and gave the rest to our companions. We did the same with the main course. We declined dessert. We declined coffee. We declined a digestif. I consumed a slice of Camembert the size of my thumb, in hope that it would act as a binder. Promptly at 3, we made our excuses, and then our escape, returning to the hotel by high-speed taxi. We went immediately to bed, to sleep, each of us, until 9 the next morning. A 17-hour snooze, interrupted only by the usual trips to the toilet.
The next night was New Year's Eve. By 3 that afternoon, we had recovered. We were celebrating with Y. and a dozen other friends at Y.'s girlfriend's apartment. My wife and I were appalled by what had happened at Jamin. How stupid and inexcusable. How unfortunate. I tried to think of an American parallel and could come up with only one.
Two dear friends come to town and you want to do something grand for them, something very American, something difficult to do, and expensive. So you call every contact you have -- a newspaper editor, a congressman, a bookie. And after two months of negotiations you get seats at ringside for the heavyweight championship of the world, at Madison Square Garden, naturally. And your friends show up, are escorted to ringside and are disgusted by the sight of blood.
I told that to Y. in the course of an abject apology.
"You're not even close," he said, as he packed his bags for a fortnight's journey to central Africa -- and what follows is not written to diminish Y., still less my wife and me, nor to supply an easy irony, nor to permit the reader a tight little superior smile, but because it is the simple truth -- to write journalism about the famine.
Ward Just's most recent novel is "The American Blues." This article appeared originally in The Boston Globe.