“I found an American!” he said, waving his clipboard and wiping the sweat from his brow.
At least that’s what I think he said as we stepped into the back room of a half-empty office building.
I’d been walking the back streets of Dijon, France, enjoying the city’s white-granite and timber-framed tidiness, when the sweaty little man with a bulging red proboscis frantically approached me in rapid-fire, out-of-breath-from-walking-across-the-street French.
I deftly rebuffed his advances with a confident smile. “Je ne parle pas français,” I pleaded. Whatever he was selling, I wasn’t buying. I’d avoided my fair share of street scams in Europe, and wasn’t about to get-got in regal Dijon.
Thinking that’d be the end of that, I turned on my heel, but he grasped my shoulder and shrieked, “England?”
“America,” I said.
He had me. Damn my cursed patriotism!
“I love America! Please, I have a special purpose!”
I took a half-step backward, but he kept talking.
“I need people to…um…test food…in my office…for a special purpose. Some cheese, biscuits and, ah, salami. You try them and tell us if you like them. Come, come, we need more people for our test. You will like it! It will be an experience!”
A few minutes later, despite every fiber in my being telling me to continue declining his special purpose, I was standing inside a 1.5-person elevator next to this Hobbit-sized Gerard Depardieu as he listed his favorite American authors.
“Dan Brown. Cormac McCarthy, oh, Cormac McCarthy is…superb,” he gushed while animatedly rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, he’s pretty great,” I agreed.
After turning sideways, one at a time, and shuffling through the miniscule elevator door, he briefed me on the plan as we strode through empty offices amid unused chairs stacked atop desks and half-filled cardboard boxes.
“We have three biscuits, four cheeses and three sausages. You will taste one at a time, then answer our questions, then another and answer our questions.” He mimed eating and typing.
How long would all this take, I began wondering. Everything suddenly seemed off.
The empty office space? The questioning? What did I know about food?
Why had I followed this Cormac McCarthy-loving, Hobbit Gerard Depardieu into what looked like an illegal Boiler Room just before a S.W.A.T. team descends on the place?
He must’ve felt my growing apprehension because he stopped me.
“Don’t worry,” he smiled and grabbed my shoulder, while simultaneously swatting at a fly with his disheveled clipboard. “It will only take a few minutes,” he promised. But his eyes narrowed and I swore his smile had turned into a leer.
I scanned the jumble of office equipment.
“Oh, all this stuff?” He scratched his nose with his clipboard and surveyed the jumble of office chairs, desks and unplugged phones, releasing my arm while considering my question and perhaps realizing how sketchy everything appeared. “It’s not ours. We only take the office for one week. Come. Now you eat.”
The Cormac McCarthy-loving, Hobbit-sized Gerard Depardieu bundled me into a small corner office where six laptops sat atop standalone desks, crumbs covering the keyboards. Windows wrapped around the room, revealing an afternoon sky of gathering grey clouds. Three other victims, er, participants delicately tasted the goods and thoughtfully entered their conclusions into the crumb-laden laptops.
I detected the young lady’s smile from behind her white surgical mask as she delivered a paper plate of sausages.
“This is the first of three sausage plates,” she said. “You taste, then answer the questions.” She nodded at the laptop, then froze.
We’d reached our first obstacle: The questions were written in French. And the application running the survey didn’t offer a translation.
“Um, that’s okay. I’ll use my phone. But a question: You said the first of three sausage plates. So, I’ll be tasting nine sausages … and nine cheeses … and nine biscuits?”
“Oui,” she said, promptly turned on her right heel and left me to my crumb-covered laptop.
This could take all day! Restlessness rippled through my spine. I stood up, preparing to flee.
Just then, the grey clouds that had been gathering all afternoon suddenly opened up. The downpour arrived in sheets and covered the window like a vertical river. Mother Nature had foiled my escape.
Or, I thought while succumbing to the crumb-covered laptop, maybe this food tasting had saved me from getting drenched by the afternoon rains. Instead of cold, wet and hungry, I was dry, warm and starting on nine plates worth of free gourmet food. It could be worse, I surmised.
Plus, well, I had committed. And clearly the French gastronomic industry required my highly refined palate.
I pressed on. Pretty soon, I had developed an effective if not clumsy process: I’d eat a few bites, then hold up my phone to the laptop screen, aiming the auto-translating Google Lens at the survey questions and enter a few answers, put down my phone, taste another food and repeat.
But my answers may have left something to be desired. Perhaps my palate wasn’t as highly refined as I had thought. After a few plates, I realized I was marking everything as “pretty good.” Because, you know, everything tasted pretty good.
I paused and imagined a flabbergasted man in white lab coat removing his glasses in exasperation as he deciphered my results: “Good? This person marked everything as good! But specimen 2-C was a dog biscuit!”
And that’s the story of how I skewed the results of a French food survey. That afternoon taught me there is such a thing as a free lunch (in France) and that sometimes travel serendipity comes in the form of a sweaty, half-sized Gerard Depardieu. And, if you just say yes, then he may save you from an afternoon rainstorm.