It’s not that we don’t have pastries in the United States. It’s just that we don’t have French pastries in the United States. And for the person like me whose judgement is clouded by an idealistic romanticism, that makes all the difference in the world. That’s why, regardless of where we were at or the time of day, the patisseries always caught our eye. If you didn’t know better you would think that Paris’ patisseries were more about presentation and impressions than the actual taste. The store windows often feature their sweet concoctions displayed in a way that’s more artistic than gastronomic. But while I did appreciate the Food Channel styled presentations of the huge assortments of chocolately, fruity, creamy, and flaky treats, I’m here to testify – as a traveler who without hesitation went beyond the mere looks of these treats – that they are much more that simple eye candy.
It’s also clear that Parisian women may admire the pastries but they apparently have a strict “don’t eat” policy. All you have to do is look at them. Most that you see are slender and trim. And while I know that living in a city that encourages walking contributes to their fit physique, no person without some sort of tortuous, self-imposed deprivation could withstand the beautiful sight and glorious smell of these French delicacies without indulging themselves. And for the fitness-conscience Parisian, it’s not as though the patisseries are easy to avoid. Regardless of what part of Paris we were exploring, it seemed as though every street had its own patisserie and its own fit Parisian women who walked by them paying them no attention. We certainly paid them attention. Time and time again we would stop to admire and window shop. Just as some shoppers wishfully ogle the gold and diamonds in the windows of Cartier or the latest world fashion in the windows of Louis Vuitton, we would stop and with an almost child-like fascination gaze upon these edible treasures.
I remember the first patisserie we visited in Paris. We had woke up on to our first full day in the city. It was a cool, damp morning and the first thing on our agenda was a visit to the Musée d’Orsay. But before heading that way we decided to look around and find some place for a quick bit of breakfast. We left our hotel and walked up Rue Cler before taking a right on Rue Saint Dominique. We passed only three or four storefronts before coming to the window of a small but quaint patisserie. In the window was a limited but beautiful assortment of pastries and croissants, some that were so perfect in presentation that they didn’t look real. We glanced inside the tall glass front door and noticed a few tables and chairs. That was all we needed. This was going to be our first visit to a Paris patisserie.
As we entered I found myself to be a little nervous. Afterall we were new to the city and my interaction with the locals so far had been limited to places where plenty of English-speaking tourists might have been. This little shop didn’t feel touristy at all. It felt intimately Parisian. The walls were covered with pretty but subtle flowery wall paper. There were also several wall decorations many of which had obvious sentimental attachment to the owner. They gave the small shop personality and quickly informed us that this was a family business. On the right was a long glass display counter which showed off our breakfast choices and running down the left wall were about six small tables and chairs for those dining in. It was lovely.
We were met by a middle-aged woman who seemed to be in charge. She greeted us from behind the counter in anticipation of our order. As she would quickly deduce we would require her patience and regardless of how much I tried not to seem like a tourist, she probably had us figured out the moment we entered he door.
“Bonjour” she said, not smiling but professional.
“Bonjour” I confidently responded.
She let out two lightning fast but elegant French sentences that I didn’t understand but assumed was intended to find out we would like.
“Ummm…deux pain chocolats s’il vous plait”.
Perhaps it was the way that my southern American accent combined with my first grade sentence structure had butchered my reply, but it was clear she didn’t fully understand what I was asking. Now I was even more nervous.
“Deux….ummm…deux pain au chocolats” I said again, this time not nearly as confident.
She must have picked up something in my sentence that hinted at the French language. She walked over to the pain au chocolats and pointed at them with one hand and held up two fingers with the other. The universal language. It’s how we speak to infants and toddlers. It’s also how she had to speak to us. I nodded and smiled.
“Oh, and deux Coca-Colas, s’il vous plait” I added.
She held up two fingers and repeated my request. “Oui” I said with a nod. We had actually communicated and I felt really good about that. Granted it was mostly due to her willingness to decipher my choppy French but it still felt like an accomplishment. My wife and I sat down at our little table as the middle-aged woman came out with our flaky pain au chocolats. They were on the cutest porcelain dishes and were accompanied by our ice-cold glass bottled Cokes and skinny drinking glasses filled with ice. We poured our sodas and began diving into our sweet rolls with their chocolate surprises. We made all sorts of “mmmm” sounds, closing our eyes, reclining back, and using any other typical gesture that would indicate our intense satisfaction with what we were eating. Touristy? Yes! But genuine? Yes!
As if the great breakfast wasn’t enough, I still found myself enamoured with the little shop itself. An older lady came in from the back and began washing down the glass counter. I wondered if the two were sisters, perhaps mother and daughter. I wondered if this had been a family business nestled in the 7th arrondissement for years and years. We then watched as an elderly lady walked in from the street with her dog right behind her. The two walked to the very back table and she sat down. Her dog astutely laid down at her feet. That was the elderly lady’s seat. She was a regular and I could tell that this little shop was a routine part of her day. The middle-aged woman came right out with a fresh café and the two shared greetings. The older lady wiping down the glass counter came over and the three began talking as they probably did each morning. Even though we couldn’t understand the French conversation taking place in the back of the room, I looked at my wife and whispered with a smile “This is truly experiencing Paris”.
We sat a while and enjoyed the little shop and each other while savoring every flaky bite of our breakfast. We got up and left the middle-aged woman with another sincere “merci” before heading out the tall glass door. What a taste of Paris. We talked about the little patisserie as we made our way up Rue Saint Dominique – its atmosphere, the decor, the ‘French language only’ conversations, the elderly lady and her dog. I truly felt that when we had entered the shop’s tall glass door we had entered the real Paris – the Paris not explored in guide books and on web pages. I never caught the name of the patisserie. We never went back to it. But since returning home I’ve often thought of the place and how I could see it becoming a part of my normal routine. And while certain details about some of the city’s bigger sites have become blurry in my mind, I still remember the face of the patient middle-aged woman as if I had just seen her yesterday. And I still remember visiting what was at that particular time the sweetest place in Paris.