Wednesday, December 03, 2008

We'll Always Have Paris

Last spring it was Paris. Everyone I knew swore I’d love the city. “It’s totally you!” my co-workers at the magazine gushed. The clothes! The flea markets! The shoes! The chocolate! “Let yourself charge things to your credit card,” advised an impoverished artist friend. “You never know when you’ll be back, and the debt is totally worth it!”

My main foreign travel to date had been a semester in London when I was 21. I imagined a magical vacation: The architecture and artwork would be incroyable, the old cobblestone streets and alleyways incomparably charmante, the shopping fantastique. Our mornings would be filled with delicious coffee and pain au chocolat, our afternoons with delicious fromage and baguettes, our evenings with delicious wine and steak au poivre, our nights with delicious sex—and maybe another pain au chocolat. I expected flea markets overflowing with vintage coffee pots and cookware, yellowing French flashcards and children’s books, old wooden crates printed with French text and inexplicable drawings of kittens. I anticipated trying to coax Dr. Boyfriend to buy the shoes, coat, and antique pie safe I could neither afford or live without.

I pictured all the Parisian bakeries we’d visit: scores of baskets stuffed with lightly browned baguettes, multi-tiered trays piled ambitiously with crisp, perfectly formed crescent shapes and plump rectangles oozing hints of chocolaty goodness, obscene racks of velvety Napoleons and generously frosted éclairs stacked as high as the eye could see or the arm could reach, local housewives and businesspeople and school children clamoring for the exact pastry of their dreams. We’d sit near the window drinking the best coffee in the world while contemplating cubism and existentialism and the baffling popularity of the beret.

Basically, we were screwed.

My expectations could not have been higher if I stuffed them into a suitcase and sent it to the moon. Paris couldn’t have lived up even if every single Parisian had been on their best, nicest behavior—which of course is not possible.

Our first morning we set out for the bakery The New York Times claims sells the best croissants in all of France. “Why eat some random croissant nearby when we can have the best?” I reasoned. The doctor gave me look of skepticism—or was that fear?—and warned that he wasn’t sure how long the walk would be. “Who cares? It’s Paris!” I replied, dragging him by the arm and pretending to be the happy-go-lucky person I frequently imagine he’d rather be with.

Jetlagged and undercaffeinated, we started walking... and walking... and walking... a million kilometers until finally the doctor gestured across the street and said with an adorable little French-ish accent, “Voila!” Where? Where was he pointing? I scanned the block for a bakery window display unlike any I’d ever seen, overflowing with magically buttery offerings. Eventually my eyes landed on the word “Patisserie” above a window containing ... six, maybe seven, loaves of ... unwrapped Wonder bread? The best croissants and baguettes in Paris looked a awfully lot like the ones they sold back home ... at Safeway.

Holding out one last bubble of hope, I reasoned that maybe what I knew about croissants in America didn’t apply in France? Maybe a croissant that looked like it had been made by the Pillsbury Dough Boy would turn out, in Paris, to be incroyable?

I took a bite of a limp, bready pastry and struggled to keep a stiff upper lip. Where were the crisp, buttery Parisian points? The millions of layers of translucent French dough flaking off onto my bosom like a million springtime cherry blossom petals? “Aren’t they amazing?” my generous, eager-to-please, well-intentioned future mate asked, smiling nervously. I swallowed my disappointment and nodded, but the tears in my eyes were a dead giveaway.

I am a perfectionist.

I have insanely high expectations.

I will always drive you a little crazy.

And I love me my pastries.

Now, here we are, nine months later in Mexico. My expectation of Mexico was, lamely, that it would be full of bad coffee, bland meals of rice and beans, and bandits stealing our cash and Dr. Fiancé’s laptop.

Naturally, we’re having a great time.

Wish you were here.

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