Next time you’re at the meat counter, see if your butcher knows how to count.
Consider this conversation I had with the clerk at a lunch counter on Boulevard Malesherbes last week:
“I’ll have the sandwich-soft drink-dessert menu, please.”
“What kind of sandwich would you like?”
“Spicy chicken, please.”
(About 12 seconds elapse while he wraps up the sandwich.)
“Do you want something to drink with that?”
“Yes, I’ll have a Perrier and an apple crumble.”
(About 6 seconds elapse while he gets a Perrier out of the refrigerator.)
“And did you want a dessert?”
Am I the only one to notice this? Maybe it’s universal, but I have been experiencing this phenomenon in Paris for years: a person selling food behind a counter (as opposed to waiting tables) cannot be expected to handle more than one bit of information at once.
So here’s a little game you can play to have fun with Parisian food merchants. It’s called “Une Chose à la Fois” – “One Thing at a Time.” There’s only one rule: whenever you want more than one item, order in groups of two. For example, if you go to the butcher’s shop for a chicken, a half-kilo of ground beef and six lamb chops, place your order like this: “I’d like a chicken and a half-kilo of ground beef, please.” The butcher will prepare the chicken and ask, “Anything else?” Then you say, “Yes, I’d like a half-kilo of ground beef and six lamb chops, please.” The butcher will prepare the ground beef and say, “Anything else?”
I swear it works for me every time. This must be why you can get a bacon sandwich in Paris but not a BLT. It’s probably also one of the underlying reasons for France’s low birthrate: all of those countermen and butchers and greengrocers go home at night and their spouses say, “Honey, let’s go to bed and have sex.”
Sometimes I wonder if the food sellers themselves realize that they’re doing this. But I don’t dare ask them to stop and think, because then I’d never get any food at all.
Reader Laurel Zuckerman writes: “Thank you for the amusing (and accurate) observations about French butcher protocol; however I must point out one tiny error: France’s birthrate is not low. At 2.1, it tops Europe! It would seem that multitasking’s not the only way to get things done…”
Reader Jacques Bosser writes: “Rather funny column but wrong on one point: the reproduction rate in France is the second highest in Europe, just after so-Catholic Ireland. When a Frenchwoman wants some entertainment, she is shrewd. Instead of saying bluntly, “Let’s go to bed and have sex”, she uses a delayed strategy to avoid any rebuke. First, “Let’s go to bed,” then she knows she is in a better position, so to speak, to say, “Let’s have sex.” In fact, she doesn’t ask verbally; many other options – more subtle or more direct – are possible. Ironic, isn’it?”
Reader Gary Lee Kraut writes: “David’s comments on single-minded merchants are amusing and true, but I think he chose the wrong end joke in saying that’s ‘one of the underlying reasons for France’s low birthrate.’ In fact, France has one of the highest birthrates in Europe.”
Writer David Jaggard responds: “To take a quote from the Rosetta Stone, ‘Stop trying to confuse me with facts!’ My well-informed readers are right: after falling for years, France’s birth rate starting recovering in the nineties and is now the second highest in the EU. I knew this when I set out to set up the joke, but decided to go with the ‘low birthrate’ gambit since France comes in 151st (out of 195 countries) in the UN’s rankings, with a live-births-per-thousand-population rate of 12.2, well below the international average of 20.3. My source here is Wikipedia, in case anyone wants to lunge for the saltshaker. I figured there was no use trying to work all that into the article, and then the INSEE, France’s national statistics institute, released the news this very week that the country’s fertility rate had hit a 35-year high. The f***ers!”
Reader Michael Barker writes: “David Jaggard did not specify in advance which drink and which dessert he wanted to choose so it is hardly surprising that he was asked for his second and third choices. And why should a busy butcher handling several dozen clients in the day be expected to retain a triple order in his memory. Most waiters write down an order, butchers don’t and why should they – they are preparing the goods, not passing them on to the kitchen.
“It was announced yesterday that the fecundity of the French is the highest in Europe. Hardly a ‘tiny error.’ You can get a BLT sandwich in Paris – at Monoprix for example – though I find them wanting somewhat.
“What a silly piece, there are more interesting/amusing observations to be made about living in Paris.”
© 2011 Paris Update
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
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