“The Griswalds’ in Paris” (edited version)

While at Bebe’s yesterday, I discovered a treasure trove of old writings that I had assumed were all long-gone – including the original Griswald story – a trip to London in 1993. That original Griswald story was printed with a dot matrix printer. The ink is now faded but I still believe I will be able to scan and reproduce it. I recall that in 1993, many of us didn’t have an Internet connection and I remember faxing these stories from Europe. This story below is our infamous lunch in Paris at la Tour d’Argent. We were living in Brussels at the time and drove down for the weekend.


In the summer of 1993, Bebe, Jay & Barbara came to visit us in Brussels. As I mentioned in the previous email, this was a weekend trip The Griswalds made to Paris. To edit the size down to bathroom reading, it has been severely edited….RL

It was great to see Bebe, Jay and Barbara!

I drove to the airport that morning to meet them. Their plane was late, so I had a coffee and people-watched:

I tried to identify all of the Americans walking through the gate; I noticed that they [confirmed Americans] all were carrying too much luggage. The saying: “I’m carrying around a lot of excess baggage…” must be an expression exclusive to Americans. Most of these suspected Americans had somewhat dazed looks on their faces too. I had to throw out the ‘more obese’ theory – there are a lot of fat Europeans (in this airport) and probably not as many fat Americans traveling to Europe…Maybe the fat Europeans are getting fat in America?
I continued my game into the audio portion: What would these people say, I wondered? I came up with a list of possible phrases that you might frequently hear Americans [traveling in Europe] use:

• Do you speak English?
• Does anyone here speak English?
• Where’s the nearest Mac Donald’s?
• How many miles is that from here?
• Do you accept American Express?
• OK, is that in French francs or dollars?
• Can I have a Coca Cola – only with ice?
• That guy looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for French fries.
• Can I have some more ice in this Coke?
• I can’t believe this little thing cost that much!
• Can you bring me another Coke – only put more ice in this one?
• Hmm…This beer’s a little strong…Can I get a Corona with a lime?

I looked up and saw Jay pushing an overloaded baggage cart as Bebe and Barbara followed behind with all of the carry-on gear! Well, they didn’t really have that much luggage – the box with Jay’s golf clubs made it appear that way…And they looked pretty good considering that long, awful flight they just finished.

After an exchange of kisses, hugs and greetings, and a careful packing job in our car’s smaller-than-normal trunkspace, we headed for the house.

Over the next two weeks, I enjoyed watching them experience many of the sights, sounds, tastes, and little twangs of culture shock that Vicky & I had encountered a few months earlier. And we were to share many new experiences as well…

Many of these are little things in everyday life that most people aren’t usually conscious of. It takes a strange, new, alien environment – another culture – for us to examine closely why we do the things we do in the manner that we do them. So much of our lives is controlled by our cultures. It’s nice to be removed occasionally, so that one may gain a little insight.

[I have spared you the Brussels, Bruges, & Amsterdam details…]

I knew well in advance that driving into the city of Paris would be no easy chore. Barbara, Bebe, Jay, Vicky, and I got off to a late start on our departure from Brussels. We had very limited trunk space, so everyone had packed carefully. Bebe and Jay, the compulsive snackers, had carefully filled any available space with wrapped sandwiches, fruit, nuts, candy, chocolate, sodas, and a cooler of iced tea. If we got lost going to Paris, we would not go hungry – for at least three days, or so! [And I won’t even mention our stop at -Mac Donald’s – of all places!]

Jay was the acting navigator. His hands were busy with two Michelin maps (one of France, the other a detailed city map of Paris,) plus a large order of french fries and an ice cream cone…

The trick would be in finding Place Charles de Gaulle, also known as I’Etoile and site of the Arc de Triomphe. This is a place timid drivers need to avoid: Twelve busy roads converge into a chaotic, treacherous pile of (all too fast moving) automobiles. Unfortunately, our hotel was located off Avenue des Champs Elysees [I don’t mean to boast and certainly will stress the word, off] and I only knew how to get there by way of the Etoile, as I had been to the hotel previously. My Parisian friend, Michel Bourgeois, drove Vicky and me to the hotel one Saturday morning to investigate it. Michel told us his horror stories of l’Etoile on the way, including a wreck he had there during his first week in Paris, and the day he spent over an hour circumventing it during rush hour traffic!

“Robert,” my navigator said, “if I’m reading this map correctly, we need to turn to the right before we get to this bridge that crosses the Rhine River.”

“Seine!”, The four of us corrected simultaneously. I always joke with Jay about rewriting world geography with the ‘Jay Milam Geography Book’; One example of which was during his visit to San Juan, one Christmas, when he continually referred to Puerto Rico as ‘Costa Rica’.

Jay was a good navigator despite this and the constant advice and directions we were receiving from the co-navigators in the back seat. L’Etoile was soon in sight and my stomach made a small square knot as we approached it.

“My God!” Bebe exhaled, “Would you look at this!” Cars were whizzing by as we found ourselves caught up in what felt like toilet water rushing around and down the bowl. Bumpers and fenders appeared from nowhere; I was in the inside circle making my way out as Avenue des Champs Elysees drew nearer; Cars were darting from the right on collision courses. I aimed the steering wheel to the right, bit my lip, closed one eye, stepped on the gas. . . and went for it!

After I opened my eyes, I was glad to see the median of I’Avenue Champs Elysees! We made it’ Yes!! We also found the hotel with no problem; I dropped everyone and the luggage off and took the car to a nearby parking garage where it would stay until Sunday!

The hotel was a borderline dump; That’s probably the easiest way to describe it; However, I hate to bestow that title on it, as it was clean and the people who ran it were very helpful and pleasant. It was about $110 a night per double which I imagine is fairly inexpensive for Paris. Had there been a restaurant in the hotel, I wouldn’t have eaten there. But, I was not looking for champagne breakfasts in bed or gourmet dinners with a breathtaking view of Paris – not in my hotel, anyway…

We unpacked and met for a drink at the hotel bar – Titi Barbarita’s room across the hall! The hotel actually had a bar although it was dark, had no windows and always looked empty. So, we had scotch and sodas in Barbs’ room while the supply lasted.

That night we walked to a restaurant a few blocks down the Champs Elysees. L’Alsace Champs-Elysees was the name of it – good Alsatian cuisine; I don’t recall what we had other than Bebe’s plate of pigs’ knuckles and sauerkraut, which we all had a laugh about her ordering it.

The weather was not in our favor that weekend; Overcast skies turned to rain which turned to cooler temperatures and more overcast skies. Vicky was moaning about bringing the wrong clothes; She had packed light clothes to tolerate hot summer city weather. It just illustrates how unpredictable the northern European climate can be. As I write this from Brussels in the middle of July, I think about our dog and my difficulty, this very chilly morning, of coaxing him outside to pee.

We were up early Saturday morning. Bebe, Jay and Barbara insisted on going to MacDonald’s for breakfast. I couldn’t bring myself to do that so I drug Vicky along to a small place off the street where we had cold croissants, almost-stale pastries, instant hot chocolate and really bad coffee. I noticed the place was run by Arabs. “Vicky, we should’ve ordered a Tuna Rider and a Coke.” And I later heard that the Paris MacDonald’s does not serve breakfast…

[I have spared you the museum reviews part…]

Back to those American phrases mentioned earlier – I need to add one made famous by Jay – which will serve to illustrate an upcoming story:

Do you have any Ketchup?

Well, at least he doesn’t say ‘catsup’! Jay uses ketchup like most people use salt. It goes on everything from hamburgers to green beans! Over time, he’s got Bebe dunking it allover her green beans as weill Jay was a master at seeking out street food. He loved the Belgian waffles, or gaufres, and there wasn’t an ice cream vendor that we passed who didn’t get his business!

Lunch at world famous La Tour d’Argent was on our Paris weekend itinerary. It is perhaps the best-known restaurant in Paris [and probably, the world.] I had heard the food was excellent and the wine list superb. It had a notorious reputation for being expensive, however, eating lunch there, with the prix fixe menu, would be a much more reasonable eighty to a hundred dollars [US] per person. And the view of the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, across the Seine, was purported to know no equal. It would be a tasty, once-in-a-lifetime experience for us all!

It was interesting to learn, while we were at the restaurant, that it is in fact the oldest Parisian restaurant, having opened in 1582, yes, that’s fifteen eighty two! King Henry III was there for the opening festivities to give “his blessing to use of the fork.” During the 1600s’, duels were actualiy fought over tables (probably window ones) and King Henry IV used to frequently call in for take-out orders of heron pate. Later, the court of Versailles entertained there; The Duke of Richelieu honored his guests with a whole roasted ox. whipped up with thirty different sauces. Afterwards a new, special treat – coffee – was served. Talk about hospitality! Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the tradition of canard au sang and the idea of giving each duck served a serial number, was started by Frederic, the current owner then.

I called from Brussels, a week in advance, to make lunch reservations. I impressed Bebe by making them completely in French! Only, there was one small problem: I later realized in Paris that the time the restaurant had given me was unclear; Deux heurs midi (2:30) and douze heurs midi (12:30) sounded all too similar – for me anyway…I later had the guy at the hotel’s front desk call to confirm the time.

Throughout the previous week, I had watched Jay pouring ketchup on everything. I even woke up in the wee hours after a bad dream: There we were at La Tour d’Argent; tuxedoed waiters running about as the chef proudly comes to the table; He asks Jay how his lobster Lagardere is: “Not bad. . . it would be a lot better though if you had some ketchup I could put on it,” Jay says, with a big, warm Alabama smiie!

“Jay,” I asked, “when we go to lunch tomorrow…uh…maybe you could try to pass on using the ketchup?”

“Robert, if I’m gonna pay that much to eat lunch, I’m sure as heck gonna put ketchup on whatever I want to!”

Jay was still not totally sold on the idea of the trip to the restaurant. And I prayed the restaurant would not be serving green beans on the side…

Sunday morning we all checked out of our hotel, a far cry from the level of La Tour d’Argent, but certainly a much better bargain! Lunch was set for twelve thirty that afternoon. We drove to the Eiffel Tower around ten or so. The long lines – to buy tickets to go up – had already formed. Once we got the tickets, we noticed that there was a separate line to actually go up the tower. Jay noticed an almost-empty line for ‘groups’; We stepped into it, played dumb Americans when the guard told us it was the wrong line, and held back grins as he let us proceed – avoiding the twenty minute wait in the other line – the one with the really dumb Americans.

Our timing was working out very nicely. After a quick view of Paris from the Eiffel’s second platform, we had just enough time to get to the restaurant. One-way streets fought us along the way, yet we were able to arrive with no major difficulty. The valet (or maybe I should call him the Maitre des limousines, after seeing his uniform) patiently awaited while five car-wearied travellers piled out from amongst the road maps, camera bags, umbrellas, raincoats, sweaters, coke cans, peanut shells [not really – just throwing them in for atmosphere,] uneaten sandwiches, and miscellaneous trash. Yes folks, Jed, Granny, EllieMae, Jethro, and Titi Barbarita just arrived for their lunch date…Bring on the vittles’ YeeHaahh’

The reception area was elegantly furnished and dreadfully silent – and empty. It was just us five, the valet, the hat check girl (I’ll call her la dame du vestiaire – it sounds better,) and a guy in a full dress tux who just turned out to be the elevator operator (no idea what to call him.)

The elevator opened up to a beautiful, elegant, tastefully conservative [clubby-looking] dining room with -yes! – an incredible view of Notre Dame. A small, frail, sharp-featured, mustached, bespectacled and also tuxedoed gentleman greeted us as we got off. I originally thought he was the maitre d’hotel, although he spent a good deal of time at our table acting as waiter, so who knows? Now again, my experience in these kind of places is very limited, so forgive me for the incorrect titles I may assign. It takes a very experienced connoisseur of haute cuisine and culture to be able to ramble off the various titles and duties of the numerous soldiers of service running around this restaurant. Kind of like the guy in the US Navy who can tell you what all of those silly Navy abbreviations mean. “Who? The guy over there with the red cummerbund? Oh . . . he’s just a BBFCFO – busboy first class, forks only…”

Our table fell way short of one of those by the window with a view. I guess they like to see how you behave the first time before they appoint you with a window seat. I guess I can sort of see their point; I mean, imagine having passerbys from below looking up through the windows of your restaurant and seeing a bunch of fat Americans chewing with their mouths open, having food fights, slurping down the finger bowl water as an aperitif, drinking ice cubed White Zinfandel with their canard au sang, and plotting how they would use their official six digit duck number to play the Florida lottery…

We were at table number 64, a big round table near the entrance (well, at least they didn’t want to hide us!) We glanced around the dining room: It appeared we were the only Americans in the restaurant. We saw severa! tables of Japanese couples. Two pretty, courtly young Asian women – Bebe called them Indonesian princesses – sat at a table near us. Most of the other clientele, I assumed, were well-to-do French. I recognized the owner (from a photograph I’d seen) sitting at, probably his usual table, by the window, with a young woman and her son. Our waiter gave us menus and several of us started with the house white wine (a simple Sauvignon) at twelve bucks a pop (the price of which, then, we were unaware.) We studied the menu.

I laughed to myself as I noted the prices. I pictured Daffy Duck rubbing his disbelieving eyes to clear his vision. It was so expensive that I thought I might be calculating francs to dollars wrong. I must be adding another digit in there…

[Another sign of Americans is the longer than normal time it takes for them to wade through a strange menu] None of us looked ready to order as our heads looked up in unison as the waiter approached the table.

“Are you ready to order?,” [And he had given us plenty of time] the waiter asked us.

Oh shit, I thought.

“Or…may I be of assistance in making your selection?”

“Do you have a prix fixe menu today?” I nervously asked.

“No. . . we offer that only Tuesday thru Saturday.”

I asked him for recommendations. He told us about the canard au sang in vivid description: How they serve it for two people in two courses; Breast first, leg second. The duck is deboned, with the bones crushed in a special press and combined with the blood and a little wine to make an accompanying sauce for the bird. He went on with other specialties such as lamb and a fillet of sole in a Champagne sauce. [click here to see photos of canard au sang]

We ordered appetizers. Barbara and Jay ordered melon, which was a small, chilled Charentais melon served with a cute little lid cut in the top and served on a plate of ice. This later would be our big laugh on the way home as we scrutinized the bill and discovered the price of the cute little melons: “I don’t think I want anybody to know that I paid thirty-eight dollars for a cantelope!“, Jay said, laughing defiantly.

Vicky and I decided to split an appetizer of Foie Gras des Trois Empereurs. I was still rubbing my eyes as I was looking at the price (the equivalent of ninety nine dollars.) Maybe this is a main course, I thought. Or I’m just not figuring this right. . . nine dollars and ninety cents maybe? It came to the table, both servings together roughly equaled the size of a Snickers candy bar. It was served with two types of aspic and bread. It was delicious! Vicky and I ran out of the special bread and used the bread on the table; We didn’t get our hands slapped, so I guess it was OK to do…

Barbara ordered Noisettes des Tournelles, small round center cuts of lamb with a sauce; Bebe and Jay ordered the filet of sole with Champagne sauce. Bebe later admitted to being nervous, as Jay originally was going to order the lamb (It was served with green beans on the side!) No. we didn’t force him to order the fish – that was his decision. . . Vicky and I decided to order canard au sang for our main course. As strange as it sounded, it must be absolutely delicious to be a specialty in this place. The waiter looked painfully surprised when I asked for it:

” Uh Sir. . . Let me describe this particular preparation, in case you didn’t hear me correctly the first time. . . We take the bones and crush them in the press and mix it with the blood to make the sauce… ”

“Yeah, that’s the one we want:”

“Sir, we do have several other preparations of duckling that you may prefer… ”

“No, this sounds fine… ”

[This guy had no idea he was dealing with an adventurous Yank and a Puerto Rican who ate all kinds of strange things]

“Well. . . it’s just that I find that…uh…most Americans who order this don’t like it …Perhaps you would like to choose another sauce?”

I was ready to press him on this until I saw the look on Vicky’s face; Her guard was up and she had that ‘Wilbur-maybe-we-should-do-what-he’s-saying-Iook. Vicky’s whimping out on me! I should have realized it the other night after watching her reaction to the BBC’s televised special on the cuisine of Viet Nam; A guy was stir frying a king cobra. “Ewww . . . they’re not even going to take his skin off,” Vicky announced, as they chopped him up and threw the pieces in the hot wok…

“Well,” I said, resigning to the pressure from both parties, “I guess we’ll try the green peppercorn sauce.”

By now, Barbara and Bebe had discovered the little trick of the waiter escorting them to the…salon de powder?…He was pretty quick; If they got up you could be assured that he would be at their side within seconds. Jay even tried it and got escorted as well. I passed. I was worried about the possibility of twenty franc pay toilets…

The wine sommelier had presented me with the wine list: As predicted, it was huge and very in-depth. Bebe and Jay were not drinking wine and Barbara wanted just a glass of white wine with her lunch. Vicky and I would share a bottle.

I engaged the sommelier in a discussion about wine, secretly hoping that he would realize I knew a little about the subject and thus on our next visit we might be allowed a window table or a chance to taste canard au sang! I was amazed to find out that the only non-French wines served here were the fine selection of Ports. The sommelier smiled when I mentioned this and had good comments about the wines of Australia but seemed to reserve judgment on American Wines. I sensed this might be a shaky area for him.

“Well, let’s see… we’re going to have the duckling with the sauce poivre vert, so I was looking towards a red Burgundy… ”

“Oh, yes…well, of course…,” he answers [sort of in the no shit, Sherlock tone,] “Perhaps something from the Cotes de Nuits…like this very nice Vosne-Romanee [he points to it] or this Echezeaux that is drinking very nicely…”

I let my eyes slide over to the right with minimal movement from the head. OK, hmm . . . thirteen hundred.. looks to be a fairly average price on this list. . . divided by five, equals two hundred sixty. Wait! Let’s try that again: five goes into thirteen twice, carry the three, with five going into thirty, six times, giving two hundred sixty! Maybe I’d better make that bathroom trip now!

“Hmm . . . that Echezeaux does look really good, except. . . you know, we drank Echezeaux last night [yeah, right!] . . . maybe we should go for something else…”

And Vicky, with her usua! perfect timing, naive!y speaks up:
” No Robert, didn’t we have a Beaujolais Villll…”

“NO! That was the night before last”

My eyes were doing the supermarket laser scan. These prices have got to be in centimes, not francs!

The somme!ier, detecting my hesitation, was tactful enough to give a good range of prices to choose from. I chose a 1978 premier cru Nuits Sf. Georges, “Les Boudots” from Jean Grivot, at the relatively lower price. I knew ’78 was a pretty good year for Burgundy, and with the reds being fairly concentrated, this wine should stand up well to the sauce. Plus, the wine wou!d have a !itt!e age on it, making it all the more enjoyable.

Our plates arrived. Barbs’ lamb was undercooked. She sent it back. And unlike American establishments which, in a similar situation, would simply resort to the microwave oven, she figured they were starting from scratch with another cut of lamb. Her new plate arrived well after we were into ours, and she seemed happy with the second cooking.

Bebe and Jay enjoyed their sole. I was relieved there was nothing worthy of ketchup on Jay’s plate. Vicky and I savored our duck – both servings! I don’t know why they do that, but it was very delicious. The wine paired well and really added to the enjoyment of the dish. The flavors from both the food and wine were wonderful. The duck was in a rich, balanced sauce with the background spiciness of the peppercorns. The wine was full-bodied and aromatic with classic Cote de Nuits flavors of black cherry and hints of tar, clove and leather.

A salad course came afterwards. Followed by a fruit and ice cream parfait for Jay, a selection of cheeses with a glass of tawny port for me, and just-what-this-world-needs-is-a-good-seven-dollar-cup-of-coffee all the way around!

The waiter presented Vicky and me with a card showing our duck’s serial number – # 792,812. As Jack Goedert would say, “It’s a lotta ducks!” The sommelier arrived with our wine label, that was soaked from the bottle and presented in a card. He invited us to see the wine cellar which was very impressive. Holding some 350,000 bottles, the oldest vintage goes back to an 1858 Bordeaux – Chateau Citran, a property now, incidentally, owned by a Japanese investment group. And there are old Cognacs dating back to 1788…

As we navigated our way through the streets of Paris, in search of the A 1 to Brussels, we tallied the check and converted to dollars: With forty dollar melons, seven dollar bottles of water and cups of coffee, main courses averaging seventy two dollars, a one hundred seventy dollar bottle of wine, and all the incidentals, our check amounted in excess of eight hundred American dollars.

Jay wrestled with the morality question of eating a forty dollar cantelope [I guess we could have explained it to him as almost like playing golf at Pebble Beach]; I think Barbara figured out how many weeks she could eat at Morrison’s Cafeteria, but we all (well, almost all) agreed unanimously on the following four points about our lunch at La Tour d’Argent:

1. We all had a good time
2. the food was wonderful,
3. and terribly, terribly overpriced
4. but the possibly-only-once-in-a-lifetime experience made it quite worth it!

There’s an ironic little quote, printed in French, at the bottom of the bill by the restaurant’s proprietor, Monsieur Claude Terrail:

“There is nothing more serious than pleasure…”


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