I had a few friends from NYU New York visit me this past weekend, and amidst the exploring and tourist to-do’s and many many many museums, I insisted on taking them to my favorite place to eat in Paris. Tucked in the corner of a side street, next to a McDonalds and several tourist-trap restaurants, is the Genia Panini stand. It’s not unique– in fact, there’s another one just two minutes away on the same road– but this panini stand is made special by Zoya, the French woman who works there during the week.
Eating in France is nothing like eating in the United States. At home, I am lucky enough to have a family that loves to cook and is good at it. In New York, the proximity of Trader Joes and Whole Foods leaves me wanting nothing, as I always popped over for extra ingredients to whip up something special or for a frozen dinner on the nights I didn’t feel like cooking. In Paris, however, the food doesn’t appeal to me in the same way. It’s definitely been an adjustment, tasting the different types and sizes of ham that are sold at the grocery stores here, and trying not to judge them by their looks. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as comfortable eating here than I am in the United States. It’s not a big deal, and I think it’s probably normal, but it has made eating (and, more specifically, eating well) difficult.
Enter Zoya. A lot of people at NYU Paris know about the Genia Panini stand because of its proximity and because a panini goes for €2.50. But not many have paid attention to the woman making their sweet crepes and paninis other than the odd Ca va? or A demain! That was the extent of my relationship with Zoya until my French professor gave my class the assignment to go into Paris and strike up a conversation with anyone about their life to see where it takes them. I immediately thought of Zoya, whom I assumed was named Genia at this point in time, and went to ask her questions as I got my daily panini.
She was hesitant at first, of course, but soon opened up and was speaking as fast as she could flip paninis. It was difficult to understand her French, but that was part of the fun. I felt like I was really grasping the language (okay, attempting to grasp the language) and Zoya never made me feel like she was dumbing things done for the dumb American.
After this, Zoya and I began to talk regularly during my visits to the panini stand. Though I am, unfortunately, tired of the Special Genia panini after getting it for almost a whole semester, I wave to Zoya whenever I catch her eye. She always greets me with a smile and a ca va? before asking what I would like, which is “the usual.” The best part (besides Zoya’s kindness) is the fact that she doesn’t slip into English immediately after hearing my accent. She has actually told me the correct pronunciation of words and mentioned that practice makes perfect.
Without Zoya, I wouldn’t be fed. Thankfully, she is waiting for me, Monday-Friday, with a €2.50 panini and smile.