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Speak-a Da Language

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(Hi.  I am slowly but surely making my way back in here.  I have a story from a trip to Paris for you all.)

One store I wanted to hit up while I was in Paris was E. Dehillerin, a place which all and sundry assured me was the spot for cookware – knives, sheet pans, pots, fiddly baking tools, you name it. All three guidebooks I got sang its praises, and every web site also gushed about it.

However – all three guidebooks and every web site also cautioned me that E. Dehillerin is mainly a wholesale shop, catering primarily to restaurateurs and professional chefs. That didn’t spook me, though – there are a number of places like that in New York as well, where everything is sort of pitched together haphazardly and you get little in the way of customer service. Also, they don’t put price stickers on anything – you have to flag down a clerk and give him the serial number, and he looks it up for you. It’s a hassle, but they figure that hey, if you want to go through all that trouble for a single dough scraper, well more power to you.

And a lot of people seemed to want to go through that trouble at E. Dehillerin.  When I got there, the aisles were packed with a polyglot crowd – I heard French, of course, but also some English, Japanese, German, and I think even Spanish spoken amid the throngs of people poring over the shelves, poking through the knives and the stewpots and considering the cookie cutters and financier pans.  Three or four clerks wandered through the crowd, making themselves available to anyone who wanted to look up the price of anything, while two harried shop girls sat behind a counter painstakingly adding up prices on manual calculators.

I didn’t have a particular goal in mind – I have a pretty extensive batterie de cuisine as it is.  So I was just going to survey the store and see if anything grabbed me.  During my travels, I passed an older couple a couple times – smartly dressed, frowning at the knives, and speaking English.  The first couple times I passed them, the woman was scolding the man for not remembering what kind of knife her sister-in-law wanted or something as I slipped past them as unobtrusively as I could.  The second or third time I started feeling sorry for the poor guy, and got enough of a listen that I could tell they were American.

I went downstairs to look over the larger stew pot stock for a while, and got away from them – studying the huge array of woks and pans and Dutch ovens they had, packed floor-to-ceiling on metal shelves.  They’d never be able to fit in my suitcase, I figured, much less my apartment; so I went back upstairs. And near the stairs, I saw the woman had cornered one of the clerks, who was looking slightly pained as she lectured him.  “I don’t get it,” she was saying.  “There aren’t any prices on anything, I just want to know how much these knives are, and there’s just too many to decide from so I was hoping the price would help, but how can I decide if there aren’t any prices on them, and — ”

“Pardon me, ma’am?” I tapped her on the shoulder.  She and the clerk both turned to me, surprised to hear me speaking English.  “Ma’am?  This actually is a wholesale store.”

“Oh!” she blinked at me.  “Oh, really?”

“Yes, madame,” the clerk jumped in, glad to finally have a chance to speak.  “Is for professional chefs mostly, but we permit ze public.” He shot me a grateful smile for explaining.

“So, how do people find the price?”

“They come to me, and I look in ze book.”

“Ohhh.” She blinked again. “Okay, so would you mind sticking with me while I look? That way when I find something you can look it up right there.”

I just looked at her in shock, but the clerk slumped slightly and said “Oui, madame….”  She swanned back towards the knives as he shuffled along behind her.

My own browsing kept me clear of her after that – she was mainly in the market for knives, but I was sticking to smaller, less deadly things so I could take them in my carryon going home.  I poked through, and rejected, things like cookie cutters and measuring spoons; the dough scrapers would work, I thought, picking out a couple.  And maybe a package of napkins.  Then I spotted a weird five-bladed set of scissors.  I was pretty sure it was meant for cutting herbs – a task that up to this point I’ve been using plain scissors and a shot glass to accomplish – but wanted to check.

I glanced around for the nearest clerk – and sure enough, it was the same guy, free of the older woman.  I slipped over to him; he recognized me from before.

But I made a point of speaking French. “Pardonez-moi, m’sieur – est-ce que ceci pour couper des herbes?”

He blinked a minute, registering that I was speaking French – and then beamed. “Oui, madame, bien sur!”

Merci, M’sieur!” I said back.  And I’m not entirely sure, but I think that when he gave me the price, he told me something a tiny bit less than what was in the book.

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