Even if the butter was emanating from bags of popcorn, the scent of the fat made me think of all the wonderful French things made with the glorious churned milk. Crossiants, pain au chocolat, sole meunière, beurre blanc. Each of these heavenly items sparked memories of my few days in the capital of France.
Earlier this year as part of my four city, three country in ten days epic spring break, I traveled to Paris, France for the first time. For me, those 60 hours in Paris are committed to mind. The atmosphere, the people, the language, the sounds, the smells, the food; everything was absolutely wonderful. Perhaps I caught what Walter Wells refers to as “vacation syndrome.” Writes Wells in his essay “Becoming a Parisian,” “You actually believe that this magical place you have come to allows you to be the contented, stress-free person you really are.”
I will admit that I fell under a deep spell in Paris. Despite the cold temperatures and the threat of showers looming without an umbrella, I felt as if I could stay there forever. This reaction surprised me immensely. Because of my passion for anything Italian, I always thought that a Tuscan villa or Sicilian beach house would be the place I would escape to if I were to postpone going to law school or experienced a mid-life crisis. But Paris made me wonder…Maybe it is the writer in me, but the city captivated a part of my heart.
It only took a few days in the City of Light, but I am continually reminiscing about the evening I watched the sunset from the Eiffel Tower and the moments when I stood in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting, The Mona Lisa, in one of the world’s largest museums. Then there are also moments when my mouth waters just thinking about the decadent, delicious, and butter-laden goodies that I enjoyed in the French capital.
When I think about my time in Paris one of my favorite memories comes from the afternoon spent picnicking in the Tuileries Gardens. It was the quintessential French meal: two large wedges of French fromage, Brie and chèvre, fruit from local fruit vendors, including strawberries and grapes, three loaves of French bread. And what would a Parisian picnic be without wine? Two bottles, one white and one red, complemented our lunch. In the shadows of the La Grande Roue, I enjoyed one of the most memorable meals of my life.
Though those hours in Paris passed by so quickly, I am consistently reliving them through my reading and my stomach. Recently I finished a compilation of letters between Julia Child and her penpal Avis Devoto detailing the extraordinary efforts it took to publish Child’s magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In one letter to her friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the French chef wrote, “Paris is heavenly. Such fun to wander about in it again. I think more than ever, that I shall never get over Paris, and never find anything anyplace more to my tastes. Every thing about it satisfies everything in me, and I shall certainly come back to spend my declining years.” For her, Paris was the place to be.
Yearning for those days in Paris, I have been on an ongoing search for someplace that might satisfy my Parisian craving for both food and atmosphere. Fortunately for me, the French bakery PAUL has exported itself to the United States and has a shop in our nation’s capital. On a recent day I made the trip to the National Archives and the Navy Memorial to see if PAUL could transport me back to the City of Light.
I knew heading down to PAUL that my expectations were high, perhaps too high. Even so, when I saw the rows of croissants and other pastries in the bakery’s case, my face lit up. I knew that butter was about to become the prime contributor to my day’s calories; there was no guilt, no shame, just a smile. So with a cappuccino and a small brioche I took a seat in the sun outside the café.
As I tore pieces of the brioche with buttery fingers and the espresso began to wake me from an afternoon slumber, I could not have felt more satisfied. The people around me were not conversing in a foreign tongue or dressed in French chic, but nonetheless I was transported. I took a sip of my coffee and felt its warmth combine with the rays of sunlight saturating my body, and then I thought of Ernest Hemingway and his writing days in Paris. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” the author wrote in his memoir A Moveable Feast, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Right then I realized he could not have been more accurate.