Every time I go into the cabinet above the toaster looking for some Sleepy Time Tea, I stumble across the tins of pâté de canard, the jar of foie gras, and all the other inedible delicacies our friends from Paris left as a gift for staying with us on their recent exchange-rate-driven jaunt. Nothing against our pals, they’re delightful-a French docteur, his charming Anglo-Brazilian wife and two of their four lovelier-than-lovely kids. It’s just that when I look at those baby-blue tins and that glass jar filled with odd gelatinous goo that Jean-Marie had assured me “ees the finest-so delicious, so especialment, we went way out of our bounds to secure it,” well, I feel like they’re still staying with us and I start to panic.
As if fitting a family of five into a Manhattan apartment wasn’t hard enough, I never realized that signing my lease also entitled me to become a floating pied-à-terre for guests from near and far. An errant cousin, O.K., that I could take-but after the first few days of our Franco-American hospitality experiment, I had a serious suspicion that, just like the roaches behind our backsplash, our visitors would check in but they’d never check out.
I started to fear that I’d walk out of the kitchen and there they’d be, the lot of them crammed into my daughter’s bedroom, my daughter spliced between my wife and me in our bed, the boys doubled up in their room, an Everest of suitcases clotting our front hall. I’d hear our Parisian friends getting up at dawn to make it to a gospel church service in Harlem (never done it), then go to a matinee of the latest overamplified Broadway musical (never done it), skip downtown to grab a special $20.99 lunch at Babbo (never done it), then scour the sale bins at Century 21, J and R Music, B and H Photo (never fit into my schedule), flit over to the West Side Highway to take the Circle Line (sorry, never boarded the boat in my life), then slake down some aperitifs at the Oak Bar (never!), and then maybe grab a couple quick turns around the park in a horse and carriage (not moi!) before heading uptown, whipping up an omelette aux herbes, changing their underwear and heading out for a Pinter play or two (I’ve never managed to see one-not even on Channel 13).
Which isn’t to say that our guests didn’t provide a service. It’s really great to hear firsthand about all the latest shows and restaurants and clubs we’re missing. Fact is, my wife and I are usually too preoccupied with homework and violin practice and paying the bills and making lunches and giving baths to pay much attention, so it’s nice to listen to our friends as they natter on in broken English: “Oh, and the Indo-Mexican food we has enjoy on Le Avenue D, she was fantastique!”
And then there are the spoils. These people live in frickin’ Paris, for heaven’s sake, and they’re running into the apartment night after night weighed down with fluorescent shopping bags full of detritus from the cheesiest of cheesy New York emporia: Styrofoam visors from Old Navy (” Très bon, très chic”); New York Mets Bobbleheads from Modell’s Sporting Goods (“Ooo la la, ziz Dayglo baseball, c’est merveilleux!”); even toothpaste and candy from Duane Reade (” Le drougstore absolument! Regardez les Necco’s Wafers!”). Not to mention the cartons and crates they haul back from every two-bit going-out-of-business electronics retailer between Washington Heights and Chinatown. We were lucky they were able to have the hi-def plasma-screen TV they bought (SECAM!) shipped directly to France. I really think I would have lost it had they unpacked the 54-inch monster and tried it out in the shadow of our flickering 19-incher.
What’s more, despite the fact that they own a huge house in a leafy Parisian suburb-something like four stories and a garden-they really loved piling all over each other in our daughter’s bedroom. ” Le slumming!” they’d chirp, as all of them, including Monsieur le Médecin, trampolined themselves on our pillows and rapidly deflating air mattresses. “Eez just like the flat fantastique comme Robert De Niro à habité in Taxi Driver, la force majeure cinématographique!”
” Oui,” I replied.
And I have to say, I’m not so sure about all this stuff about the French lacking in personal hygiene. These folks were clean. In fact, they managed to block up our showers for hours at a time; they went through clean towels like they were Jerry Lewis movies. Shampoo, soap, toothpaste, dental floss-even toenail clippers-were consumed at lightning speed. You haven’t lived until you’ve used a sliver of Dial soap to wash, shampoo and shave-especially when you’ve got a REALLY BIG, BIG MEETING IN A HALF-HOUR.
They didn’t always dine out, either. Freed from the culinary capitol of the world, our friends went ga-ga over every kind of fried, deep-fried, double-deep-fried, MSG-coated delivery food they could get their hands on. Here we were, struggling to keep a lid on carbs and sugars and fats and lipids and cholesterol, and they were cackling with Gallic glee as they dialed up every take-out/delivery restaurant in a 20-block radius at all hours. It was hard to keep a civil tongue when they’re wolfing down a bacon double cheeseburger deluxe from the Homer Diner (complete with a honking huge fried-onion ring and le cheese frites!), especially when you’re struggling to swallow down a tofu pup, dry. ” Le bon gout!” they’d howl as nachos platters and Buffalo wings and Pad Thai flowed in, a Hudson River of forbidden trans-fatty acids.
Oddly, just as the day of their departure was creeping up, a flurry of phone calls took place. They were feverishly passing around the receiver, jabbering in lightning-fast French. My junior-high language skills gave me just enough facility to understand that they were negotiating with Air France about changing their tickets. Before I knew it, they had decided to blow off Barbados, St. Lucia, Anguilla and tree-house living in Costa Rica for … West End Avenue. It seems there were one or two Off Off Off Broadway shows they hadn’t managed to see, three or four top-rated restaurants they hadn’t sampled, and they still wanted to try ordering in from the Nepalese take-out joint.
What could I say? No? “No” is not an option-not with friends. Of course, they did eventually pack up and make their way back to Paris, doing a nice job for the U.S. trade balance in the process. But now that the greenback is languishing even deeper in the international monetary basement, just a few baht above the rupee, I realize that Monsieur le Docteur may decide to drop in on us again any day now-who knows how many Mike Piazzas the euro will be able to devour these days? Quelle horreur. Quelle horreur.