Sunday, March 21, 2010

Konnichiwa Spaghetti

Konnichiwa Spaghetti
On Friday I met a friend at the entrance of Galeries Lafayette so that we could find somewhere to have lunch near the Opera. While I waited for her, I found a little spot amidst the motorcycles parked on the sidewalk, so I could get out of the throngs of people on Boulevard Haussmann. What a parade of fashion faux pas, fetish and flair, all to the unceasing accompaniment of a tall, spindly and wizened organ grinder who might have had sticks for legs, but whose arms were as taut as harbor rope. He never stopped turning that crank the entire 35 minutes I was there. He had a sweet orange tabby cat on a red satin leash. She sat placidly, in the perfect cat stance, with front legs and paws in a straight furry line, and the tip of her tail delicately tap-tap-tapping as she calmly surveyed her corner of the world. Pigeons cooed and pecked around her with impunity. Every once in a while, the organ grinder would open up his free hand, and a white pigeon with brown spots would settle on his wrist and peck at some food in his palm.

If you spend any time in a foreign country, you become skilled at identifying the nationality of passersby. Americans love their glaringly white brand-name sports shoes, logo bags and college sweatshirts and Dutch women wear wide-legged three quarter length slacks and geometric tunic tops with colorful, wide-toed, flat shoes. Japanese hipsters have big shaggy hairdos and skinny-jeans or costumes of pink fluff juxtaposed with chains, as if they had just stepped out of a Manga cartoon. There's always a smattering of Muslim veils, but there wasn't a single North African in site. I'm always interested in the French women, mostly makeup-free, who invariably wear simple, classic clothing, even if a bit scuffed or worn, but they always carry themselves with understated elegance. One petite woman wore a Chanel suit whose wool had balled up or had been pulled in several places. She'd had that suit for a long time, and would wear it for a long time to come.

My friend arrived, an American who knows how to pull off an international look, in black slacks, practical but elegant medium black pumps, a soft red blouse and coral sweater. We kissed and then pondered which direction we'd walk to find a sidewalk cafe. There are several cafes in the area, where you can sit outside and look at the historic Opera building and watch people go by. The weather's been beautiful in Paris for the last week or so, not yet reaching 70 degrees, but gloriously sunny. So, we wanted to sit outside and enjoy a lingering, chatty lunch. I generally avoid the touristy parts of town, because the waiters can be a bit impatient and haughty and the food is high priced and mediocre, but this was close to my friend's French school, so... what the heck.

We selected a cafe, mostly because there were seats available outside and our waiter had a big welcoming smile. He motioned us to a table in the front with great flourish. When someone left at the back of the patio, we asked if we could move and he quickly whisked all the dirty dishes off the table and reset it for us. He was warm and friendly, which isn't often the case. I ordered a kir and my friend ordered a diet coke, which came out in a big fat mug that looked like an old-fashioned root beer glass.

My friend and I were soon too deep in conversation to pay much attention to the ebb and flow of cafe customers. She told me how she uses an evening meditation to send out love to all the people she came into contact with that day (a practice I had never thought of, but of which I heartily approve) and we discussed the concept of withholding sex from spouses who voted for Bush for the second time (a practice I didn't know existed, but of which I heartily approve). I talked about my recent acceptance of the fact that I'm a hermit. I find calmness in silence and gain sustenance from being alone.

At one point, during a rare lull in our conversation, I realized that each time the patio emptied, the two waiters would stand at the front and try and lure more customers in. They had also become adept at parsing nationalities, and greeted people in their own language. There was one particular chant I kept hearing from our waiter: Konnichiwa! Spaghetti! I realized that every time Japanese tourists would walk by the restaurant, our waiter would greet them with, "Konnichiwa!" And when he caught the tourist's eye he'd then say, "Spaghetti!" After the 5th or 6th time I started laughing and asked him, "Pourquoi spaghetti?" He told me, "Because all the Japanese people order spaghetti. Spaghetti with this sauce and spaghetti that sauce. Always spaghetti!"

I don't know why, but I think that Konnichiwa! Spaghetti! needs to become the new code phrase for... just about anything. It has a certain ring to it, n'est-ce pas? As if we're bowing with respect to an obscure God of noodles, a cross-cultural comfort food that magically gives Mediterranean sustenance to the weary Asian traveler. Either that, or it's a new Manga Mating Mantra.

(Image courtesy of SetoAngel01 at


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