2004 December - Paris:
The sandwich is good. A "Greek" sandwich with fries. The nice guy behind the counter is wearing a light blue smock. He looks a bit like a barber. He knows what I want because I point to it. Number 1 on the menu. He drops a load of ice cold fries into hot oil and the sizzling starts. I pick out an Orangina. No beer tonight for me. I'm still a bit groggy from the time change and I don't want anything to interfere with a good night's sleep.
In Paris, alone, I'm often at a loss for where to eat. There are plenty of great places, but I'm alone. I sometimes go into a restaurant. I'm greeted with smiles and shown to a nice table, but I'm still alone. Staring at the menu, picking up enough words here and there to get a good meal. Without someone to laugh at the odd choice of word or to marvel with me over the way some French word mimics another word in some other language. These are not my favorite times when traveling. I often walk the streets before dinner. Maybe an hour up and down one street, or around the odd corner and back. Seeing the people, the places. Checking the action. Living in the moment.
Tonight I'm eating near the bottom of the epicurean scale. This is a little Greek "restaurant." A little shop, not much more than five crowded little tables and a service counter. Two-hundred square feet, maybe. No toilet, or at least not one you'd want to see. This is the Paris equivalent of a third world street vendor. So different than small eateries we've visited in Greece.
A vertical spit is layered with flat cuts of lamb or pork or beef or whatever. You can't really be sure. It spins slowly in front of hot bare gas flames. With each rotation the outer most bits get singed a bit more. A few turns and they are nicely browned and crunchy. I've seen workers take a knife to the spit and slice off the cooked layer into a pan; not here. This place has some electrical gizmo that they use to remove the ready parts. It makes no sound that I can hear. He runs his device over the spit of meat like a man sheering a sheep. The harvested meat scraps fall into a pile in the greasy catch basin at the bottom of the spit.
My guy uses tongs, the stuff is hot, to put a generous portion into a sliced open roll that he holds in his bare hand. You have to get used to these guys handling money and then food. There's no way around it. As an American with a hygiene fetish I like to keep the dirt of daily existence separate from my food. That's not the way it's done here on the street. Another guy in blue, on break, sits watching TV. Other customers come and go. Tonight it's Greek sandwiches for everyone. This place does a good business. My man has to service them all while his friend stares at the blaring French MTV.
Long after the first crowd comes and goes, the second guy gets up and stretches. A short grimace to himself and he spends a minute standing there - picking some odd bit of food out of his teeth with his fingers. Must be a wad of gristle from his Greek sandwich. A wad of indigestible protein. Something unchewable that jammed in a tight space between two bicuspids. I know how uncomfortable that can be. He really has to muscle it out. A bit of relief shows on his face when it at last pops loose. Ahh, it always feels good to suck on your teeth after winning a battle like that. He swallows. He smiles a bit with satisfaction. He walks over and straightens out the bread rolls to be used for the next patrons. Pick them up from here and put them over there. Handle them all. Oh God.
I pay my bill and squeeze out past a new group coming in for Greek sandwiches.
I stand on the street feeling some odd thing between two of my back teeth. I look at some crumbs left on my overcoat. I wonder if I really want to put my hand in my mouth right here.
At least the sandwich was good. I probably should have had a beer too.