Lately we’ve really been trying to become regulars at our favorite cheese place. We eat bread and cheese for dinner more often than not, so this felt like a good relationship to invest in. You get better cheese if they know and like you.
Before we left for Tel Aviv, we went to the same cheese place several days in a row, each time waiting to talk to the same guy and asking him to recommend three cheeses. Usually we asked for une vache, un brebis, et un chèvre (one cow cheese, one sheep cheese, and one goat cheese), but we let him take it from there. His recommendations were always delicious. He usually knew exactly what to give us, but sometimes he would point to two or three, describe them, and let us choose one before moving on to select the rest. He always told us the proper order to eat the cheeses in, because in France you do not just nibble indiscriminately. Non, quelle horreur! You move from the mildest cheese to the strongest, as though you’re warming up your palate as you go.
At first, our friend – we were friends, right? – spoke to us in a mixture of French and practically-perfect English. Some days, though, he would speak seulement français, leaving us wondering if: (1) he had forgotten us, (2) he was tired of talking to tourists, or (3) he thought we understood more than we did. Hoping that the answer was #3, on those days we usually just nodded and said, “Ah, oui! C’est bon!” before pointing to a cheese that we knew very little about. His choices never failed us, so this seemed like a good system.
We felt like we were really developing a connection, so the day before we left for Tel Aviv, we told him we’d be traveling but would be back the following week. “Bon week-end!” we wished him.
When we returned, he not only recognized us but seemed to have forgotten that we weren’t French. We asked for three cheeses comme d’habitude, and for the first time ever, he gave us cheeses we did not like. They were so strong! Our American palates could not keep up, but we were flattered.
It took us a long time to return since we could only eat a few bites of the strong cheeses at a time and so they lasted through many meals. When I did go back, I was worried that he wouldn’t recognize me without Colin, who is – in my opinion – tall and handsome enough to be memorable but was unfortunately back at the office. But our friend wasn’t there, either—a woman was in his place. As I was doing my best to explain to her (en français) that I spoke mostly English but some French and wanted cheese to eat tonight rather than to pack up for travel and did she have anything good to recommend today, our friend walked in. He was loaded down with boxes to deliver to the store room. He smiled and gave me a breezy, “Ça va?” I smiled back. We were friends! “Ça va bien, et vous?” I replied, proud of myself for remembering to use the formal form of “you.” (We’re not that good friends.)
The saleswoman seemed to become much more helpful once she realized that I was known. She chatted with me about my year in Paris, corrected my French with a good-natured wink (which never happens! No one ever bothers to help you learn!), and picked my trois fromages very thoughtfully.
I went back again yesterday, and again our friend was working in the store room. I begrudgingly greeted another employee, and tried, yet again, to explain that I wanted three cheeses to eat tonight and could he recommend anything in particular? He looked at me like I was a little crazy – “We’ve got a whole store of excellent cheeses,” I imagined him thinking. “How am I supposed to know what you want?” – until our friend called out from the back to explain. I didn’t hear what he said, but I like to imagine that it went something like this: “She’s a regular, and she likes good cheese. Pick out three of our best for her!” The salesman turned back to me with a newfound sense of appreciation and said, “Ah, oui, you know my colleague.”
And then he picked out three excellent cheeses for us.
The next step in this process is probably to find out our friend’s name, but I’m afraid to ask because he’ll probably say something super French and I won’t understand and then it will be awkward and I’ll never be able to ask again. So for now, he’s just Our Friend the Cheese Guy.