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When in France, don't eat the fajitas

June 05, 2005|Robin Rauzi | Times Staff Writer

Paris — We learned an important lesson after three weeks here: Do not succumb to the temptation of Mexican food in France.

When you've been gone from Southern California for nearly two months, a longing sets in for tortillas, for beans, for tacos or burritos or anything that's had contact with a jalapeno. It hit my girlfriend, Amy, first, this serious jones for Mexican food, and she dug deep into the weekly Periscope guide (en francais, mind you) to find a restaurant near L'Alliance Francaise, where we finished up our four-week French class about 6 p.m.

We got to Susan's Place, a Tex-Mex joint in the Latin Quarter, just after dark, and they stuck us in seats by the window, probably so the place would look crowded, which it wasn't.

(In Paris, they don't have Mexican food really, just a cuisine they call "Tex Mex." On our first day in the city, we passed a restaurant called "Indiana" that served Tex Mex, which is a bit like calling a French restaurant "Bulgaria.")

We ordered Mexican beer, which cost 5 euros a bottle (about $6), enchiladas and the house special, fajitas.

Before our food arrived, the maitre d' brought us something else: a real, live Texan.

I can think of only a few times I've seen someone who looked so out of her element. Her hair -- highlighted and permed -- was teased up 3 inches above her scalp. Her eye shadow was light blue. Her black knit top laced up over her cleavage. I was suddenly much less worried about standing out as an American tourist in my REI polar fleece.

She took a seat at the table next to ours and ordered a small pitcher of margaritas and a quesadilla. The whole scene was a sad country song -- but played on the accordion and sung in French.

Amy, for all her desire to meet people on the road, is a bit shy in situations like this, so I struck up a conversation, which I knew wouldn't be hard.

The Texan was eager to talk to anyone who spoke English. She had come to Brussels and Paris with a friend who was on a business trip and tied up in meetings until 8 p.m. or so. The Texan was lonely and frankly scared on her own in Paris.

She'd been here a few days but had barely wandered a block beyond her hotel for fear of getting lost. She hadn't ordered any meat in restaurants because she'd seen one time on one of the TV newsmagazines that horse meat was a delicacy in France, and she didn't want to eat a horse by mistake.

I would have bought tickets to see the conversation she'd just conducted with a hotel clerk. It ended with her pantomiming the concept of "towel."

We tried to cheer her up with our toddler-level French. We explained that bonjour meant "good day." And we told her that Ou est -- pronounced in Texan "Ooo-way" -- means "where is," so she could ask for her hotel or a street. But it was largely hopeless. She was headed back to her Houston suburb the next day; she would leave Paris one of the few people who had a thoroughly miserable time here.

Where are the beans?

The Tex-Mex food at Susan's Place was brutally sub-par; you could do better at a Chi-Chi's in Ohio. Susan was strangely frugal with the beans -- who skimps on refried beans? And it was the most expensive dinner we splurged on, nearly $45.

Yet those two hours -- did I mention the horribly slow service, even by European standards? -- consoled me. We had been here since Oct. 1 and were staying through Thanksgiving. Daily I was overcome by the feeling that we were not doing enough, not seeing enough. We often didn't leave our sublet apartment until afternoon, after two baths, late breakfast and French homework. We rose late.

Our internal clocks seemed stuck in a time zone that only Reykjavik uses. But we'd seen Paris a thousand times over compared with our Texan friend.

We relaxed after that. We would see what we could. We would come back for the rest. Meanwhile, we would ask our family to send tortillas, chiles and mole sauce.

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