As young men, we toured Europe with our parents. You might think we were there to nibble at the rich cultural traditions of the continent or to devour the idiosyncrasies of its people—all to be packed away for a future novel. Ah, if only that were so! As it turned out, what we remember the most from that trip was the food . . . and its consequences.
The journey began with jetlag in Paris. Normally, that’s a minor inconvenience to any trip, but the French have found a way to turn that inconvenience into a major headache. It’s an art form (as well as a source of revenue) for them.
In those first heady days, we’d awake every morning at five o’clock and saunter down to the café, where our parents would later meet us. The café was never open when we arrived, so we had to wait for them to roll up the metal doors. Paris, despite its reputation as an elegant destination, is not such a pretty place at 5:00 AM. It’s all garage doors and harsh lights, like the warehouse district in a B movie. It’s only when the cafés open that the city comes slowly to life.
We’d order coffee, and they’d plop down this big basket full of croissants. Plain, chocolate, cinnamon . . . the works. We stuffed ourselves every morning. Our parents eventually arrived to pay our bill, and then it was off to the cultural events of the day. We didn’t learn until much later that the French cafés—unlike American restaurants—change for each piece of bread you eat, or partially eat, out of the basket. Our parents never said a word, but it was our first lesson in continental cuisine. There would be many others.
After a brief stay in Paris, we traveled east. All along the way, the available or prevalent food informed our opinions about a place. In Frankfurt, Germany, for example, the hotel breakfasts were feasts compared to the French offerings: a buffet of freshly prepared hard rolls, slices of ham, hard-boiled eggs, muffins, and coffee. It was all you could eat, too, included in the room rate. (We asked.) Sure, we might have preferred an omelet, but what the Germans lacked in finesse, they made up for in quantity.
Germans certainly know how to fill up a stomach: plenty of starch with an equal amount of beer. Mix well and let sit for five hours. At first, it was a culinary explosion, but eventually, every German meal began to look the same. Potatoes, meat, and heavy sauce. We missed vegetables . . . until we arrived in Nuremburg in the midst of its asparagus festival. Every restaurant offered “Spargel! Spargel! Spargel!” The Germans made everything with it: soup, salad, casseroles, even dessert. After one meal, we found ourselves longing for meat and potatoes again.
In Nuremburg, the market in the city center did a brisk business. You’d think “Spargel” was the German word for “gold,” in the opposite way that “Gift” is German for “poison.”
In Athens, we fell in love with the fresh yogurt, among other tasty treats (lamb skewers, anyone?). Everything was delicious. Very soon, we felt comfortable enough to experiment. One day before we left Greece, we found a place promising “Eastern Cuisine,” which we took to mean Chinese food. We were wrong.
Greeks, we discovered, think of themselves as Eastern European, thus our meal consisted of stuffed grape leaves, lots of olives, chicken marsala, and baklava. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and we shoveled it down like a fallen vegetarian in a hot dog eating contest. Unfortunately, the meal didn’t stay down. Worse, the taste of olives kept returning on us, without pity. As a result, we cannot, to this day, eat olives. A mere whiff is enough to send us careening toward the bathroom.
But back to our trip. The meal that spoiled our taste for olives ruined more than just our taste buds. Athens is filled with open-air markets—the best places in the world for unusual finds and unusual people. We’d spent many days checking out the wares and the wearers. Most markets, however, also sold food, and guess what many of them smelled like? Olives.
We needed four days to get over the stomach virus. We spent them in a constant panic, searching for a bathroom, a remote tree, or even a reasonably clean hole in the ground. We took to carrying a roll of toilet paper in the backpack. Our majestic sweep through Italy devolved into a tour of bathrooms. The Coliseum? Missed it. The Leaning Tower? Had to use the toilet. Florence? One bowl after another. Luckily, we’d get another chance, later in life, to return to view what we’d missed.
Lessons Learned: Watch what you eat, not just because your waistline demands it, but because the consequences can be severe. In this case, we survived, but with a culinary scar that remains with us today. It affects our every meal choice and leaves us prone to continuous ridicule from our olive-eating friends who have never heard the full story. Maybe now we’ll get some peace.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 1/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport
Native Population: 2,200,000
Normal Attractions: There are too many to mention. The Louvre is our favorite, but Paris boasts art, culture, history, and of course food. If you go to Europe, there are many worse places to go than Paris. We know; we’ve visited most of them.
Final Point of Interest: The culinary reputation Paris enjoys originated in the melting pot aspect of its inhabitants. As people immigrated from distant lands, they brought their recipes with them, creating the soufflé that is Paris.