The walk to the Alliance Francaise each morning fills my eyes with a palette of spring while air, fresh and sweet, embraces my skin. I must come some morning, to sit in these chairs, to read, – a little bit of heaven.
It is time to leave Agnes to her own devices and turn towards Duras.
The street where she lived for over 50 years, Rue Saint Benoit, doesn’t resemble what she encountered every day. Certainly, Restaurant Le Petit Saint Benoit looks more up scale than it did in photos from the 1940’s except, perhaps, the inside.
In her memoir of WWII Paris, La Douleur or The War, Duras wrote,
“I get up and lean my head against the windowpane. Down below is the Saint-Benoit restaurant, full up, hive of activity. They’ve got a secret menu for those who can pay.”
The last time I passed by the restaurant, it wasn’t a “hive of activity.” Today, I will see if I get a secret menu.
To get there from the Alliance on Blvd Raspail, I walk down Rue de Rennes, excellent for window shopping. As I reach Blvd St. Germain, a Monoprix. My daughter said it’s a good one, and she wasn’t wrong: even the clothes attract the eye. C’est mieux.
By one, I’ve reached the restaurant. Only a few outside tables are in use.
A lively waitress seats me, gives me the menu, and when she returns, we discuss my order. I want some grenouilles or frog’s legs. No, she says, I can’t order just one entree. Can I order two, for instance, the frog’s legs with the salad d’endive? No, I can order one from the list of entrees, the first course, and one from “the plats,” the second course. I select risotto aux asperges for my required second course. Then, we choose the wine. She discourages my choice and suggests a more expensive one which she assures me is much better.
She writes the courses down on the paper tablecloth and quickly returns with the salad d’endive. I tell her, no, I ordered the grenouilles. She shows me she has written down the salad. I tell her she misuderstood and I want the frog’s legs. She acquiesces but not happily.
The sun has moved and I’m engulfed in hot air. I ask to move. A problem as she has to move the paper tablecloth to another table. She does it. Ten, fiften minutes pass, no grenouilles. Luckily, I unwitttingly ordered an entire bottle of wine and can pass the time getting buzzed. The owner or manager sympathized with me and apologized for the delay.
Finally, they arrive. Pas bon. They must have been frozen, microwaved, then, deep fried. Next the risotto- very good. As I ate I glanced across the street at 5 Rue Saint Benoit and wondered what window Duras had pressed her head against. I watched the other diners interacting with the waitresses and noticed they were having a different experince than moi.
They were told the menu du jour, news to me, were asked if they would like water, I had to ask for it, and were given a selection of desserts not offered to me. Perhaps this was my secret menu, the one reserved for Americans that don’t speak bien Francais. Duras would have cheered me on: she could put up a good fight when she felt her rights were ignored.