I meet Francis Kerline for lunch at the Terminus Nord, opposite the Gare du Nord in Paris. Francis, who is himself an accomplished writer, has been translating my books into French for 18 years now – and peerless work it is, too, taking my flocculent verbiage and shearing it into beautifully coiffed French. Back in the day, I always felt he looked at me much as Salieri does at the puerile and scatological Mozart in Amadeus: as if he couldn’t quite believe he was spending his time on works produced by such an idiot. Still, as we’ve grown older together, I detect a certain mellowing.
The Terminus Nord was, Francis tells me, a buffet de la gare of the type that used to be found at every French station of note but, nowadays, they’ve undergone the kind of refurbishment and homogenisation that our world won’t be done with until we’re all sitting naked on a mound of rubble, slobbering on a radioactive Turkey Twizzler while humming a lullaby in Mandarin. The Terminus is now, he thinks, part of a chain of about 10 restaurants in Paris, and while the steaks are still grilled on the spot, the more complex dishes are made in a central kitchen and couriered out daily.
Still, the interior and ambience of the Terminus are real even in their fakery – if you see what I mean. After all, Paris is a relatively small city that receives some 42 million visitors every year, so almost everything in the centre has a staged feel. The Terminus is therefore archetypal, what with its clusters of frosted-glass, globular lampshades, its savage napery, mirrored walls, brass rails, tiled floors and waiters whose combination of éclat and arrogance would put a warlord to shame. Francis says the interior retains its style moderne feel and the murals of young, boatered and moustachioed men seem to date from 1925, when it first opened, while the coffering of the ceiling suggests – to me, at least – the outline of a train carriage.
Neither of us feels hungry – which prompts the question of why we’re lunching instead of smoking – so we do that reluctant luncher thing of skipping the entrée and both ordering the same dish: risotto bio carnaroli aux noix de Saint Jacques et cèpes coulis de potimarron. Basically, this is five big scallops with some gooey rice and a sauce made – Francis assures me – from unusual pumpkins. The little bolus of food is almost lost in its big dish, but once we manage to tap our way across the yards of crockery rim, it’s perfectly tasty. We drink Perrier, and Francis also has a glass of Chablis.
Despite it being 12 years now since I’ve drunk alcohol, Francis still finds my abstinence bizarre: “I can’t understand drinking to get drunk,” he explains. “That’s not the way we French drink wine – when I have a glass of wine, I’m imbibing the region where it comes from. If I want a beaker full of the warm south, I choose something from Provence; if I want to taste the myth of France, I sup on a big Burgundy like a Romanée-Conti; and if I want the very douceur de la vie to wash over my palate, I will opt for a sweet wine from the Loire – such as a Coteaux du Layon, because its aroma will summon the honeyed light of that region.”
Indeed. I sit there thinking about how, at best, when an English person drinks wine, she’s sucking up a social class. If British wine-bibbers were being honest, instead of asking for a dry white, they’d request a provincial petit bourgeois and have done with it. As for me, over a decade of being a conduit for mineral waters of all sorts – filtered through volcanic rock, chalk, limestone, siphoned by sisterhoods and carbonated by Carthusians – has left me politically altered. Together with a teetotal friend, I recently conducted a water tasting and, after working our way through enough fluid to leech the amino acids from our brains, we concluded that the City traders of the 1980s had it right: Perrier is the acme of sophistication. Make of this what you will.
And on that note, the Assortiment de trois fromages avec salade verte est arrivée. Francis is dismissive: “So boring,” he mutters, “a brie, a Saint-Nectaire and that …” The troisième he doesn’t bother to name, poking it with his knife. If rennet could look humiliated, I’m sure that this sad wedge would. Still, I’m not disconsolate. After all, I’m not in the business of consuming culture but rather of reading culture through consumption and, on that basis, lunch has been a real success.