Excerpt from Chapter Eight:
If I Am What I Eat, Who Am I?
One of my fondest dining memories took place at a hotel in Pontorson, France. Why was I in Pontorson? Because the town was near Mont-St.-Michel, a great rock that Mother Nature had thrust into the air like a giant fist along the western coast of France. It wasn’t just the rock that made the place so special. It was the flat expanse of sand that surrounded the rock and stretched for several miles towards the horizon, where the English Channel lurked just out of sight. During high tides, ocean water flooded the landscape and surrounded the rock.
As I approached Mont-St.-Michel, I noted an abbey adorned with stone cloisters and secluded sanctuaries seated majestically atop this rocky throne observing its realm. Below, a tiny village of tourist shops wound its way up the lower portion of the rock, and three wooden fishing boats lay on their sides in the sand. The boats looked clumsy and helpless. They reminded me of beached whales waiting for the tide to rescue them, and when I saw two fishermen approaching, I suspected they would soon be set free.
I turned my gaze to the horizon in time to see the sand begin to shimmer with the seductive dance of a desert mirage. Was it my imagination, or was there now a hint of blue water where land met sky? My question was soon answered as fingers of water slithered across the porous surface towards me. The mirage had been transformed into a blue veil, its leading edge hissing as the sand tried in vain to absorb the advancing tide that marched relentlessly towards the shore. It reminded me of an alien creature in a horror movie that would not be stopped. At first, the water could be measured in inches, then feet. It wasn’t long before I had to retreat to the causeway that connected Mont-St.-Michel to the mainland. Water surrounded me; the fishermen’s boats had been joyfully released from their sandy bonds; and the massive rock known as Mont-St.-Michel had become an island.
The unfolding drama helped me work up an excellent appetite, and I returned to my hotel in anticipation of a fine dinner. There was a small problem, however. I had taken a few French courses in school, but the words I’d learned for different kinds of food -- poisson for fish, poulet for chicken, beouf for beef, legume for vegetable -- did not appear on French menus. Nothing looked familiar, with the result that I rarely got what I thought I was ordering. A plate of ham turned out to be a pork sandwich, and so forth. It was the same everywhere I went in France, and by the time I arrived in Pontorson, I was quite wary of French menus.
I had taken most of my meals at my hotel and always had the same waiter. He was a young man who seemed determined to become the finest waiter in France, if not all of Europe. His service and attention to details were impeccable, right down to the towel he hung with such precision over his left forearm, and the way he smartly kicked open the swinging doors leading to the kitchen when he left the room carrying a tray of dishes balanced on his right hand above his head.
This would be my last dinner at the hotel, and I opened the menu with as much hope as temerity. My eyes were instantly drawn to the dinner special, which I was certain translated into duck l’orange, one of my favorite dishes. After so many disappointments, however, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I tried in my faltering French to confirm this translation with my young waiter. He couldn’t speak a word of English and had no idea what I was saying, but he was so determined to understand me, his smile morphed into a grimace and sweat broke out on his brow. The tension in his face was palpable, and I could see that my line of questioning was going nowhere. In desperation, I tucked my hands under my armpits, looked up at my waiter, and flapped my elbows up and down in a flying motion. Then I quacked at him. The busy dining room became noticeably quieter; many eyes turned to stare. Mostly French eyes, I might add. I knew what they were thinking. There’s another one of those strange American tourists making a fool of himself. I had to admit that they were right. I mean, how would you react if you saw someone holding his armpits and flapping his elbows while quacking like a duck?
The effect on my waiter, however, could only be described as therapeutic. The tension lines fled from his face, and his grimace returned to a smile. Vigorously, he nodded his head up and down to signify a “oui.” I may have set back French impressions of Americans for another fifty years, by I got my duck l’orange!
I'm Travelling as Fast as I can - Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter Eight: