Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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FEBRUARY 9, 2012 4:26PM

Snow + George Clooney + being an idiot = no more dumplings!

Rate: 22 Flag

It started like any other movie night.  But it would end in possible self-imposed exile from the Chinese restaurant down the street.

On Tuesday evening, we decided to go see The Descendants.  As friends had told us, the film is moving, but just light enough to keep you from coming out of it depressed.  We thought it was excellent, with brilliantly written characters.  Eldest daughter Alexandra (played by Shailene Woodley) was so much the way my sister had been as a teenager, that it gave me chills.  The movie engulfed and engrossed us, and when the credits started rolling, I wasn’t surprised that nobody moved. 

We probably should have decided to stay and collect ourselves before heading outside, too.  But we were hoping to have some free time before bed (for the boyfriend, this was especially important, since he’s desperately trying to finish his shako -- a high hat that sort of resembles a drum - in time for an upcoming battle reconstitution).  And so, we put on our coats…and scarves…and hats…and gloves…and headed out the door.

Right now, Europe is in what the French are calling an “arctic cold wave”.  The minute we stepped outside, a biting wind rushed to meet us.  It was snowing -- not thick, soft flakes that fall on your face like petals from the sky, but small, icy pellets that stung our cheeks.   The cold and ice were all the more unpleasant because our minds were still in Hawaii, where the movie takes place.  Still, we hiked up our collars and set off down the street. 

By the time we got to the square located halfway between the movie theater and our apartment, our faces felt frozen solid.  My big black knit hat usually perfectly protects my ears, but somehow the wind had gotten to them, and now they were as numb as ears could be.  If I'd had any doubts that the boyfriend was also chilled to the bone, they faded when I pointed to our local Chinese takeout place, and he nodded and followed me inside, even though he’d already had dinner. 

Thanks to my dear friend A., a connoisseur of Asian culture and cuisine, I’ve come to learn that there are some excellent Chinese restaurants in Paris.  But a majority of them are like the one we walked into now.  Surprisingly, Chinese food made for French people is a bland mix of same-tasting sauces and small niblets of meat that are supposedly chicken or pork, but are interchangeable.   

The one good thing about the Chinese place down the street is its dumplings.  They actually have flavor and are quite delectable.  My plan that frigid night was to get a few of them to take home for dinner.  But when we got in the door, I realized I was hungrier than I thought. So I decided to order the 5 euro menu* I usually get when I stop by (For all that I knock it, our local Chinese place is convenient).

I started ordering.  And then this happened:

Me: “I’d like some noodles, please.”

Girl behind counter: “There aren’t enough noodles left.”

Me (stupidly): “Oh….”

Girl behind counter: “You can take half noodles and half Cantonese rice.”

Me: “No, that’s all right…”

Boyfriend: “If you don’t want the rice, I’ll eat it.”

Me: “Ugh. I don't want any Cantonese rice near me!  Remember the last time I had it and got food poisoning?”

As I finished, I cringed. I hoped the girl didn’t think I was talking about Cantonese rice I’d gotten from her restaurant.  My sluggish mind raced, thinking of how I could smoothly slide an explanation into the obviously overheard conversation.

Girl behind counter: “Where did you catch it?” 

“Oh,” I laughed nervously, “not from here! You always make good food!  I got it from one of those microwavable meals they sell at the Ed grocery store!”

The girl said nothing. 

The boyfriend nudged me stiffly.    “She asked if you wanted the food to be hot!” His low, staccato voice belied his embarrassment.

In my defense, the cold had numbed my ears, and my mind was still mostly somewhere in Hawaii, and anyway, here’s what I thought she said: “Vous l’avez chopé où?” (“Where did you catch it?” - pronounced “Voo lah vay shopay oooh?”).  Here’s what she actually said: “Vous voulez chauffé ou…?” (“Do you want heated or…?” -- pronounced "Voo voo lay shofay oooh?")

“Uh, no, it’s okay,” I hastily said.

The girl gave me a kind look that I nevertheless had no problem understanding: “What an idiot.”

I’m lucky the boyfriend knows that I tend to babble (which I did again as I paid and left), and that I’m a bit hard of hearing, especially at the worst possible moment.  I’m lucky he accepts me anyway.  He followed me out of the restaurant and took my gloved hand as we braved the glacial wind the rest of the way home. 

“I’m so embarrassed,” I laughed after a while.

“I think the next time you go there, she’s going to spit in your food,” the boyfriend muttered.

“I don’t know if I should go back!” 

He nodded, getting an icy snow spray to the face.  "I don't know if either of us should."

I’m lucky the boyfriend isn’t a big fan of Chinese food.


*Chinese take-out places for French people play a sly game: It may not seem this way, but it's usually cheaper to order a menu than individual items, even if said items are small, etc. 

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Don't feel stupid. I do that stuff all the time. Wait, maybe I'm stupid. Oh well, I'd still go back if the food is good. -R-
A slice of life in Paris. Yes, I know about Chinese restaurants there.
I cracked up! We've all been there. I'm betting you'll go back. :)
Christine - Your comment made me crack up! I know you're not stupid. As for myself, I have my doubts....

old new lefty - I'm sorry you had to experience crappy French Chinese food!

Firechick - Oh, I still am not so sure...Our cat does love those dumplings, I might feel bad for him after a while and go.... (yes, I am contributing to pet obesity...but he just loves dumplings so much!).

jane - She is indeed Asian. For me, an Asian person speaking French is one of the hardest accents to understand. I think it's because the sounds in Asian languages, plus the sounds in French, are so different from English - it's like a double whammy! And I think Asian people have a hard time understanding me when I speak in French, for the same reasons. Thanks for the reassurance about the spitting. I think the girl is nice and hopefully wouldn't do it. Though I'd kind of understand....
A great story. Hey! do you think I could ask for your help with a French language phrase I want to include in the next chapter of a story I'm writing? I want the character to say a particular thing, in French, and then realize she is speaking to someone who doesn't understand French, and then she will repeat herself, in English. It would be great if i could get some help with this.
DH - It would be my pleasure to help, and I"ll have the boyfriend double-check. Feel free to PM me the phrase.
I'm glad you got your dumplings and didn't get sick (except with embarrassment!) I often go to a "Halal Chinese" place for my work day lunches. The Chinese workers there all speak both English and Arabic. Many speak some Spanish, too. Immigrants who start small businesses will do what it takes to survive!
Such a nice, if icy, slice of life in Paris. Always lovely to read you.
We went to "The Descendants" last week, and for some reason my wife thought it was going to be a comedy...But we really enjoyed looking at those beautiful Hawaiian gardens. Sorry you're getting all the cold weather, it's been way too warm here...
Alysa, you really disappointed me with this post. I went into it hoping to hear that on a snowy Paris night, George Clooney approached you in restaurant, looked at you with those bedroom eyes, and said (in perfect French of course), "Alysa, those dumplings you are eating look terrible. Come with me and try my dumplings. They're delicious."
Very funny. Let's hope the restauranteur thinks you were simply famished to the pint of losing it.
Mais oui ma cher... She will be spitting in your food. I cannot believe how we have changed weather patterns.
Its sounds darn froidddddddddddddd..:)
haha-like 500words, I estimated a different sum-
I rounded the addends way UP!
I usually just nod!! ~:D

I suppose that's one of the axioms? of life-there are never enough noodles. Knowing you, you had a grand time regardless. And go back, by all means. Do it for all of us. R
These glimpses into French life are very revealing. Surely no one would spit in your food because you had an oops moment? I hope it warms up soon for you. And I hope we get some of your cold down here otherwise our spring and summer will be insufferable with awful heat, humidity, mosquitoes and fleas.
I've been hearing about the unusual cold spell in Europe generally. I know that feeling of icy snow flakes that sting one's cheeks - which we haven't had that much this year. I wish I could send you one of the winter hats I knitted, Alysa.

There are a lot of Orientals (Asians) in Montréal, but somehow I find their French a lot better than their English. Perhaps by law they have to attend French schools and take English as a second language, although many of them get privately tutored.

I should go to see some of these new movies I hear about. Keep warm. ♥
snow + george clooney + . . . I was told when I joined Open Salon there'd be no mathematical questions!
Funny story. I'd go back if the food is worth the loss of face. (I wonder how you talk about losing face in French.)
Anyone who speaks more than one language and is courageous enough to live in a country that speaks something other than their native tongue impresses me--so you're doing great.
doN"T orDeR tHe bROwN gRavY
I was right there with you! Great night! Stay warmmmmmm......
I wouldn't worry - retail front-line people have heard it all...and are happy to keep on selling to you.

Didn't have a chance to sample Chinese food in Paris except in one place, near our hotel in Le Marais, and I wanted to sample everything in the case - looked wonderful. I think that was a cold late night and we just had soup, tho. (And wine!) (Not as cold a night as you describe!)

Chinese people have gone everywhere and, collectively, must speak all languages there are. There are long-time Chinese in Peru, perfectly integrated (at least language-wise). Peruvian-Chinese food was, we were told (my travelling friend had friends who had come from the country...including one of Chinese descent) was particularly great, a bit of fusion. We went to a recommended restaurant...but I found it The Same Old Honking. (Good tho.)
Oh! Ooops.
You can just send the boyfriend in now : ) although I think it's great you can understand the natives at all, they speak so quickly and it all seems to slide together...
Vous voulez chauffé ou....? Yes please!! Especially in my apartment!! Great post!