James Lipton

James Lipton talks about being a young American in Paris.

on Jan 4, 20080

On my first night in Paris -- my first night anywhere outside the United States, apart from Windsor, Ontario -- I asked the concierge of the Hotel Duminy to recommend a nearby restaurant, and he pointed me toward Chez Pierre a la Fontaine Gaillon. As I walked there on an early March night, the Paris streets were dark and cold and wet and indescribably beautiful.

When I arrived at Chez Pierre, it was nearly empty. On this first night of a startling new life, I took my place on a banquette, and as I picked up the menu, I hoped the waiter wouldn't notice that my hand was shaking. When I'd ordered dinner in my college French (I would have been more comfortable, and comprehensible, in Latin), I was suddenly confronted with a mysterious creature: my first sommelier.

Desperate not to be perceived as gauche -- or louche! -- I scrutinized the wine list he'd handed me, recognized nothing, put it down and said, as casually and world-wearily as I could, "I think, tonight, I'll just have your vin rouge ordinaire." The sommelier paused for an instant, then nodded and vanished. I was relieved when he reappeared with a red wine en carafe.

I was halfway through my dinner, and beginning to feel French to my fingertips, when the eponymous Pierre showed up and, seeing me -- and seeing through me -- came to my table with a smile to ask if I was enjoying my dinner. I replied smoothly that I was. Glancing at the carafe, he asked what wine I'd ordered, and I committed my first gaffe. "I ordered the vin ordinaire."

He drew himself up. "We don't serve vin ordinaire."

"I -- well, I -- well, that's what I ordered," I sputtered -- exposed as a parvenu on my first night in Paris!

Taking pity on me, he summoned the hovering sommelier with a snap of his fin-gers, and asked for a glass. Filling it from my carafe, he took a sip -- and his face fell. "Oh, monsieur," he exclaimed. "I'm so sorry!"


"This wine," he said, staring at it as he swirled it slowly, "is for certain occasions."

Feeling very uncultivated and American, I asked, "Such as?"

Still staring at the wine with narrowed eyes, he said, "You have just learned that your mother is ill," and directed a questioning glance at me. I shook my head and he resumed the litany. "Your favorite uncle has been arrested for an unspeakable perversion." I shook my head. He continued, on one long, unbroken breath now, glancing at me for each disavowal: "Your rich aunt has died -- and left you out of the will. You've discovered that your mistress is deceiving you." (We were entering uncharted waters; seeing my expression, he veered to a less sophisticated track.) "Your dog has been run over. You've lost your last sou at chemin de fer. You've contracted a venereal disease ...." There were more, but those are the ones that stick in my memory.