Imagine sitting in a little restaurant tucked on a winding, narrow side street in the Marais. There is, perhaps, seating only for twenty, and we are one of the lucky few enjoying a five-course dinner. We'd linger over the wine, congratulate ourselves on our dessert choices, and prepare to leave, hours after we'd begun, sated and smiling. But would we still be smiling after we paid the bill? Paying several hundred dollars for a meal, no matter how delicious or well-prepared, might leave us with nothing but indigestion!
In France, it is possible to pay as much for a meal as it is for one night's accommodation at a five-star hotel. Luckily for David and me, though, in this country where food is an art form, there are other approaches to eating well. We hope to use them all so we can enjoy fine food on a tightwad's budget.
One of the reasons we're choosing to rent an apartment with a kitchen is so we can feel as though we live in France, no matter how briefly. And having our own kitchen means preparing meals “at home.”
There are advantages to eating at home besides saving money. We can set our own pace and avoid stumbling out of bed in the morning, an hour before we'd like, to make sure we get to the hotel dining room before the buffet ends. In the evening, we can relax completely, knowing that we don't have to dress up after a long day of sightseeing, to go out to dinner. Sitting on our own balcony with a glass of wine and re-living the day's highlights is a better way to end the day than tromping through the streets searching for that restaurant Aunt Sarah recommended.
Another advantage to eating at home is that we will learn about the culture in the best way possible—by shopping. And the experience will be delightfully guilt-free as the French do not list fat content, or carry reduced-fat products, for that matter, on any of their grocery store labels! Will the French encourage returns by requiring us to insert money in a machine to get a shopping cart? Is bread so important in France that we can buy just half a loaf in the bakery department? Will recycling be encouraged by charging a small fee for bags in case we forget to take our own? Besides the grocery store education, in the markets,boulangeries,and patisseries we'll interact with shopkeepers, practice our French, and find the freshest delicacies that require minimum preparation.
Still, as delightful as buying and preparing our own food will be, our main objective, of course, is to save money. We arrived at the figure we're allotting for each day in France by considering the amount we spend at home in California.By scouring the weekly ads for the best sales, we spend about $275 per month, or $8.87 a day, on food in the US. In France, because we're unfamiliar with the markets, to say nothing of not being able to understand the ads, we're budgeting roughly twice that amount, or $15 a day for the two of us.
That figure will also allow for lunch picnics. We plan to either pack our own sandwiches, or buy them at the sidewalk counters that seem to exist on every street in France. We'll buy a croque monsieur (an open-faced ham, cheese, and bechamel sauce delight), fill our bottles at a water fountain, grab a few napkins, and find a bench to sit on and enjoy our food. Since French “street food” is so inexpensive, there will also be room in the budget for a special dessert treat later in the day.
We do plan to experience one or two drinks in a brasserie or a sidewalk cafe where we can enjoy the parade of passersby. The waiter, paid by the hour rather than by tips, won't mind our lingering over coffee because he's not anxious to turn our table over to new customers. Actually, although this is frustrating to the customer who'd like to encourage prompt service with a tip, the waiter's job is easier if we sit for a long time because he has fewer people to serve while still earning the same wage.
So, we will sit at that table for a long time. We'll be remembering all the wonderful meals we had and congratulating ourselves, not for our dessert choices at a Michelin three-star restaurant, but for eating well on our limited budget.