Every time I sit down alone with a bowl of mussels, whether steamed in beer or wine, I can’t help but think back to a particular August evening in 2008.
It was one of my first nights in Paris — I had spent the day exploring and taking in the city, beginning at my hotel near M˚ Voltaire and ending at the Arc de Triomphe (I had an inexplicable aversion to the subway system for those first couple days). I was hankering for a hearty meal but wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted to feast upon; I walked through the streets, quickly scanning menus and peering through the glass panes to see what patrons were eating.
Somewhere between the name swap of Rue de Rivoli and Rue Saint-Antoine was where I learned to eat mussels – the French way. I took a seat outside and took a gander at reading the menu; there were so many ways to have your mussels prepared what with all the different broths. It was then that the gentleman sitting at the next table (really, we were barely arm’s reach across, and positioned diagonal from one another) asked if I was confused. Undecided was the more apt word to describe what was going through my mind when I asked him what was his favourite bowl of moules-frites. The rest didn’t matter – what he said or what I picked, it all ended up being delicious and a learning experience.
He partook in conversation with my then incredibly limited French. I comprehended most of what he said, but my words sputtered out whenever I thought of a reply, but none of it seemed to matter. In that short hour, we exchanged what we enjoyed about the city, what food there was to eat and what I must simply try (i.e. steak frites), where offices actually were (turns out they were deceptively in the buildings that may very well also be homes), and about occupations and aspirations. But all of it except for one moment during our coinciding dinners was a complete blur of gathered plausible memories.
When our bowls arrived, he chuckled at my use of the mini fork to eat my mussels, fumbling with the shell in one hand and fork in the other.
“Is this how Canadians eat?” he asked. Truth be told, I wasn’t a frequent enough mussel eater back then so it wasn’t as though I could serve as the spokesman on behalf of all Canadians as to how we dine on our mussels. But for the sake of the conversation, I answered with a matter-of-fact “yes.” Perhaps I was charming or just plain silly (I’d like to think the former, but it’s most likely the latter), but then eagerly asked if I would like to eat my bowl of steaming seafood the “French way.” Of course, I took him up on his offer – after all, wasn’t that the point of living in another country to learn new customs?
Setting aside all utensils, he carefully picked up an empty shell with his right hand and told me that it was the only tool I’d need. Picking a random shell from the heap with the other hand, he opened and closed the empty shell with the grip of thumb and index finger, and then pinching the flesh from the meaty shell.
“And when your ‘eating tool’ isn’t as ‘bouncy’ anymore, you have a whole bowl to pick from to use next.” And with that, I became educated in mussel-eating and would share it with friends in the coming years whenever we’d dine out.
After he finished his meal, he bid me an adventurous year in Paris before downing his last sip of water, picking up his motorcycle helmet from the ground and riding off into the night. And that was the first and last time I ever met him — one of the many strangers who showed me that Paris could be welcoming and kind, despite the countless tales of otherwise that I would hear from friends in the coming months and years.
As for the bistro itself, there were quite a few times after where I would seek out the restaurant. I never found it, though I am certain to this day that it was along the Rue Saint-Antoine or Rue de Rivoli. If you wonder what I paid, I remember not paying more than 12€ for the bowl with fries, and a beer.
So coming back to this evening when I sought out a bowl of beer-steamed mussels at my one of my favourite jaunts – Upstate Craft Beer and Oyster Bar. It may look barbaric when I put the utensils to the wayside and only bother with a napkin on my lap before rolling up my sleeves and diving in with both hands, but hey, it’s what I was taught.
Image credit: Flickr (user: abbyladybug)