In Paris, Waiting Has Its Rewards

It's hard to leave Paris. Some people miss the beauty, as in gargoyles in the mist. Others miss the food. I miss the lines.

As an American, I'd grown up thinking that a line is an obstacle between me and something I want, such as seeing the first four minutes of a movie. We have express lines in the United States. We have automated tellers, drive-thru windows, bank-by-phone. All this is to avoid lines, because our time is too valuable to waste standing around.

Not so in Paris. Here, lines are just an excuse for a good conversation.

Take McDonald's. The lines at any McDonald's in Paris are long, and not just because the employees haven't mastered the knack of tossing three things into a bag at the same time. There are conversations going on at the head of that line.

"What goes with a Big Mac?" asked one prospective diner. It didn't seem that such a question could possibly prompt a long response. "Fries or more fries" would about do it, especially since the fries were French. As it turned out, there was quite a lot to be said about Big Macs, including a segue into what's wrong with American culture.

Learning to love lines is an acquired taste. For me, it began by waiting in line for leeks. You can buy leeks in Paris without the wait, but supermarket leeks don't taste the same. They've been lying around in a truck too long. If they have any moisture at all, it's because a clerk has just passed by with a hose and squirted them.

Outdoor-market leeks have a certain dignity about them. They are lovingly displayed, gently handled, and only hours from the field. But you'll have to wait for them, and on a Sunday morning the lines at an outdoor market in Paris can run a dozen deep.

You can read a book in line, but it just gets in the way when it comes time to haul the vegetables home. Instead, I learned how to cook. Start by noticing how Parisians shop. They have lists, as in: two carrots, three leeks, a single stalk of celery. In Paris, buying just what you need is as important as buying what is good. For those of us whose vegetables often wind up covered with fur in some forgotten corner of the refrigerator, this insight comes as a revelation.

If a man came along to help with the shopping (often the case), there might also be discussions about the quality of a melon or which greens worked well together in a salad. Watch how Parisians select vegetables: Big is never better, and good is not necessarily beautiful.

Then, begin asking your own questions, such as "Excuse me, but what is that [hideously ugly root] and what do you do with it?" You'll walk out with a half-dozen recipes.

Standing in line also makes you part of a place. You'll begin recognizing the same people in line. So will the farmer, and he'll set aside a bag of fresh peas if he knows you love them, just in case you're running late. Sometimes, the questions will come back at you: "Excuse me, aren't you American? And can you explain to me how to cook corn?"

(Alas, corn is the one vegetable Americans understand better than Parisians. Any New Hampshire farmer knows that good eating corn is white or bicolored, with names like "Silver Queen" or "Butter and Sugar." They're selling tough yellow field corn in Parisian markets. I couldn't bear to tell her.) "Boiling water, 9 to 12 minutes," I said, silently adding: "Chew well."

Good lines make good neighbors. My husband and I arrived home late, tired, and hungry after hiking one Saturday. Our neighborhood baker had just drawn his blinds. We'd often played with his daughter while waiting in line. Before we reached our apartment, the baker came running out a side door, with two baguettes. "I saw you walking by and thought you might need these," he said.

About any line in Paris leads to conversation. Newsstands are a good place to discuss politics; movie lines are good for cultures and the state of Franco-American relations.

Even the most hopeless of lines, such as the one for an official document, can lead to a useful conversation. I knew I was in trouble the first time I tried to renew my visa in Paris. It wasn't just that there were scores of people ahead of me in line, or even that the clerks had just announced that they were breaking for lunch for the next two hours. It was that look in their eyes when they said it: We didn't count, and my fellow seekers seemed to realize it.

No one sat down to wait out the lunch break. We all held our places in line. One man let out a cry of frustration about 1:25 and stalked out. The clerks drifted back to the office about 2:02. Some tidied up their desks. Another urgently attended to a chipped nail. In the end, I was given an appointment to come back and stand in line again.

The second trip, I was chastised for a missing document, not included on the required list, and told to come back again.

"It's very simple," explained a fellow visa-seeker, noting my despair. "You just need a thicker dossier - more words, more papers. Xerox your phone bills. Xerox your electric bills. Xerox every document in the house, things you'd never imagine they'd want, so that when you come in here you are prepared for anything."

On Visit No. 4, the clerk seemed visibly shaken when I was able to produce copies of French tax returns - not on the official list. "Your American tax returns," she fired back. I opened my fat folder, slowly, never breaking eye contact, and slid my 1996 United States tax returns across the table. Check, mate, and visa. The hours of waiting on line were lost in the triumph of that moment.

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