In my fantasy of living in France I have images, tableaux, and little mental GIF files running in my head.
In one, it is morning. I throw on a sweater and scarf, step out into the street of a small village and walk a few steps to the local bakery, the boulangerie, exchanging bonjours with passersby. Barely am I thorough the door when Madame, the proprietor, flashes me a broad smile of familiarity and we exchange the ritual bonjours and ca vas. Behind her on the rack is an array of wonderful breads–the basic baguette of course, and variations: the crusty dark rustique, the campagne, the multigrain, and our favorite, la tradition.
She is already headed for the tradition, and reaching for it, flashes another big smile and asks, “un tradition?” Yes, I tell her in my bad but earnest French, but also this morning a saucer-sized pain aux raisins, please. Money is exchanged, cheery, ritual à bientôts waved to each other, and out I go, onto the cobbled street and back a few steps to home.
But it isn’t a fantasy, it is the reality of my life these days. It’s hard for me to articulate what a glorious joy it is, what a soulful happiness it is to revel in this small joy every day. And the reality is that I am bringing home what Karen and I agree is The Best Bread We Have Ever Eaten. Oh yes, it is.
This is a small village. In American-speak, this would be called a no-traffic-light town. We are ten miles from the nearest gas station. “Commerce” in this village consists of two épiceries (épicerie, French word for an American-style corner store, hardly ever open and guaranteed to not have what you want), and two flourishing boulangeries, located ten steps apart, looking out onto the town square, a mere 95 steps from our front door. I have counted.
Our favorite is the nearer of the two. But both have enough business to survive, if not flourish, as they draw patrons from outlying homes and enclaves, causing clusters of traffic in the square each morning and afternoon. Both are tiny. In our favorite, a queue of five people backs up to the door. Every morning, long before I’m willing to wake up, Madame opens for business and stays open till midday. By then she will always be sold out…sometimes well before, so it’s good to hustle if you want your favorite, as I have learned from experience. At 4:00 she will reopen, the racks re-loaded with another wave of freshly baked beauties, these gorgeous loaves of pain. Because that’s the French word for bread: pain, pronounced “pan”.
I am Tom, and I am a bread slut. I do not go to weekly meetings to acknowledge this weakness, but I freely admit it. And I now live ten miles from a gas station but 95 steps from bread that is so good it makes you moan. It’s not just good, it’s as good as anything in Paris, and obscenely better than anything in the US, outside of maybe Manhattan. I return to the apartment with beautiful golden baguettes, crusty crunch on the outside, still warm on the inside. Good enough to start munching on the way home and return with nothing. With enough restraint to get home, a shmear of French butter will turn it into an eye-rolling, mouth-pleasuring experience.
“My GOD, this is good bread!” I will have said at least 365 times this year, because every single day I will re-experience the beauty of it as if it was the first time. It is that good. But wait! There’s more!
That loaf costs a euro, which comes out to $1.12 USD at the current exchange rate. ONE DOLLAR AND 12 CENTS!
Are you kidding me, you might ask. But no, because the price of bread is controlled in France, and it has been determined that one euro is the price of a baguette. The best bread we have ever tasted is one third to one quarter of the price of what passes for baguette in the US! So, what’s a bread slut supposed to do?
Why, eat, of course! Eat in the morning, and eat again when Madame reopens in the afternoon. And, the more you eat, the more money you save! Why hell, that’s economics!
The only problem is, the closer we get to the time when we return to the US, the more cranky we get, until we’re actively pissed off by the time we leave, because we’re going to have to deal with the mugger bludgeon that passes for baguette in the US.
And THAT’S a pain.