The Top of the Bottom-Bottom: Day 1 in Germany

We crossed the Rhein river in the lavender light of a setting sun.

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“Germany.” My mother said, and something like ancestral pride welled up in her, staring out across the land from which her people had come. A tunnel drew us into Baden Baden. Warp speed, in the amber colored tube of concrete, trailing neon signs like passing stars as we hurtled closer to the town where we would be spending the next few nights. Baden Baden isn’t as well known as Munich or Berlin. We ran into an Eastern European friend at the airport, who asked us where we were going and when we told him he nodded at us and said,

“Nice. The bottom bottom should be very pretty.”

Most of the information that I had on the place was centered around an episode of a Rick Steves show in which he and his wife got uncomfortably naked in a full service spa. I think Rick Steves’ penis wears glasses (more about the spa next week).

The tunnel spit us into a twilight city that had drifted off to sleep while we were underground and we spent twenty stressful minutes driving the same loop of the same 4 streets snarking at one another about which turn to take the way tired families in cars tend to do. We finally threw the whole operation in park beneath a sign in our hotel’s parking lot that read “For Ladies Only” which I promptly took advantage of.

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When we’d checked in and dropped off our stuff in our rooms, it was dinner thirty and there was a collective growl that started at our stomachs and was finding its way behind our teeth. The woman at the front desk told us that there were two ways into town from here. The first was shorter but uglier and the second was longer but prettier (like the movie Twins) and in our slathering, exhausted state, we opted for the Devito of the two. The sidewalks were narrow and in the dusky light, the buildings felt drained of color. Silent city, save for cars. We wound up and down grey streets, poking our heads into empty restaurants, feigning polite carelessness about where we ate, finding many of the options that we could agree on closed when we got there. We missed Monte Christo on the first pass. Saw that it was a tapas joint and felt the hunger in us bray at the thought of sharing anything. As we rounded the block, though, we heard the raucous sounds of serious cooking through a window in the alley, smelled the lush smells that accompanied them. We made a second pass and stuck the landing. The door of the place opened and the building enveloped us in its warmth. Red paint on the walls, bodies stacked shoulder to shoulder in the flickering light of candles. I had been wondering where everyone was as we’d walked into town. Here, apparently. Paprika hung in the air, smiles on faces, forks near mouths. A silver haired man rounded us up at the door and parked us at a table in a corner where we ogled the menu with its wild offerings, pointing at things. So many things. Too many things. The silver haired man returned and we ordered the too many things and he saw that we needed them and he didn’t argue. The energy in the room was a damp log on a hot fire, crackly and warm and we sat in the glow of it while we waited for the food.

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The courses came like little birds that landed on our table when they were ready. No rhyme or reason and no need for it. Bacon wrapped dates and balls of fried cheese. Pickled things and calamari and polenta. They were all different and storied and they tasted as though they’d picked up their flavors as they passed through restaurant. Sound and warmth and color coalescing into taste. We stuffed ourselves and the lights came back on behind our eyes. Laughter like a ringing bell from our table, another flavor for their spice rack. When the food had been mostly picked over, our silver haired waiter came to our table, drawn maybe by our accents or our English.

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He had lived in Los Angeles for a little while and New York for some time as well. He told us that he liked the places but that he had missed driving in Europe. Somewhere in Baden Baden there was a BMW with his name on the registration, a speedometer that went all the way up to 160 and a needle that had pointed at it.

“I like to drive fast. I missed it too much. Plus,” he said. “You all work so hard.”

He got six weeks off a year, here.

We told him about our trip and he told us about Baden Baden and his native Kosovo. He practiced his English and we practiced our German and we all practiced laughing and smiling.

 

We walked home in the darkness and it was a different city. Stars shone in the spaces between the buildings and the distant gurgle of a river whispered up the streets. The hills rose black and jagged with trees against the cobalt sky and a wind slid down the alleyways, but the city was not cold.

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https://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/monte-christo-baden-baden

The Black Burger: Reims

We were loosed like an arrow across the French countryside, pulling asphalt beneath our tires to the tune of smooth jazz on the radio. Rapeseed in the fields on either side of the road, fluorescent in the sunlight, shining back at the sky. Before this, there was a mad scramble through the Châtelet Les Halles with its swarm of commuters, ebbing and flowing through the place, oozing from its exits and cramming into the trains that tore screeching from beneath it out into the world. Before this we rode one of those steel javelins into the heart of the train station near Disneyland Paris and wove our way up all the stories of starry eyed children and their depleted parents to the Enterprise rental car station where our crushed-can-minivan sat waiting for us. Before this, there were struggles with a manual transmission and traffic circles full of honky Peugeots and a good deal of swearing all around. But then there was this. 

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Soft hills of green with lone standing trees. Herds of sheep gathered around cottages gathered around steeples amidst the expansive fields that feed them like the clouds dotting the deep blue sky. We cut a line through the center of it all with a red pin stuck in Germany, but plans for one detour along the way.

     Reims was one of the places that jumped out of the guidebooks for Melissa and me. Crumbly stone walls and cobblestone streets in the heart of champagne country. We had done just enough research to know nothing about the place, which made it both enticing and mysterious and so, once we’d freed ourselves of the gravity of a big city and were soaring through the orbit of the countryside at lunch time, Reims popped up on our GPS and we cut the wheel for the center of it. Melissa, the designated navigator, pointed us at a place called Les Cornichon, and as we followed a waterway into the city, she furrowed her brow at the map in front her and said, “ These streets are like spaghetti on a plate.” which was as poetic as it was troubling.

We elbowed our way down narrow chattering streets of stone, ogling the buildings with their tile roofs and cracked exteriors. Dad kicked it though the gears on the stop and go streets, head on a swivel for one-ways, trying desperately to keep us from being the sauce in the spaghetti. We finally threw the rattling beast into park in a lot near the water and we walked the rest of the way to Les Cornichons, which was supposed to close in 30 mintues. In fact, the whole goddamn city was set to close at 3:00 according to all the hours on the Yelp pages and our hopes were not particularly high for preferential treatment from kitchen staff, given the way things had gone in Paris in the days that had preceded this. Even the hospital crew was blasé about helping us, and they thought I might be having a stroke. We skated into Les Cornichons 25 minutes before closing time, expecting to be turned away at the door, but we were pleasantly surprised to find them happy to see us, seat us, and feed us.

     The menu was a blackboard by the door and I pointed at something on it in an attempt to be accommodating, not knowing what I’d ordered, but knowing that I’d ordered it quickly, which was good enough. We sat by a window, watching the quiet town trickle past in the midday light, sighing our tired traveler sighs, making small talk. The waiter brought our food to the table and laid a burger in front of me, the likes of which I’d never seen before. A thick beef patty slathered in an inky black mayonnaise. Cheddar cheese and thin cut pickles, all sandwiched between two jaguar-black poppyseed buns.

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“Merci” I said, unsure of whether I meant it.

“What is that?” My dad asked and I feigned confidence.

“It’s a burger.” Like he was the idiot. I bit into it so that my mouth would be full when he asked me all the other questions that I didn’t have the answers to.

It hit me in the roof of the mouth and sat there crackling and broody with flavor. Deep, rich, and measured. The patty was smoky and savory, which was offset every so slightly by the sweet and tang of the pickle. The cheddar cheese had a bite to it, but the mayonnaise was all run through with truffle oil and the flavor of the two coalesced into something like hickory smoke.

“Why is it black?” Dad asked.

To which I astutely replied “Holy Fuck.”  

His further inquiries were stifled with his own mouthful of my burger and he suddenly came to the same conclusion that I had, which was, “I don’t know why it’s black, but since it tastes like this, who cares?” We ate our inscrutable food in a respectful silence.

 

The high curbs and cobblestone streets of Reims all led to one central point. Something storied and monolithic that peeked out at us between buildings and snuck glances at us over the tops of trees. Then we rounded a bend and popped out of an alley and it was upon us. The Notre-Dame de Reims. A 261 foot tall masterpiece of stone and glass, rising from the floor of this town by the sheer will of pious men. Conceived of by people who never lived to see its completion, built in 400 AD without power tools or cranes.The first glance of it was absolutely stunning. Standing in the street with my bell rung, shock like a fireworks display, epic and dazzling.

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What was it like to see this thing before you had a frame of reference for anything like this? To live in a one story village your entire life and then ride your horse out of the treeline and come upon something like this? People devoted all of their skill and every day of their lives to the completion of this thing and they died before it was ever even finished.

My eyes grasped at the grandness of the thing. I took in the intricacies of its stone and the stories that its windows told and I wondered if I would ever recover from the disbelief that I felt at being in the presence of such a thing.

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The human psyche is an adaptive and dynamic organ, though. Normalizing unknowns and learning to live with them is an invaluable tool in terms of survival. All the humans who came across an elephant in the wild stood and transfixed by its size and strangeness instead of running like a burning monkey, didn’t pass their genes on. The stunned silence into which we’d stumbled melted into quiet murmurings, and then into drippy conversation about the cathedral and its history, and finally formed a puddle of loud questions about what we were having for dinner and how long it would take to get to Baden Baden, because we are survivors. We took our pictures and shuffled back to the crumpled can minivan. We ran for Germany like burning monkeys.

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Les Cornichons:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/les-cornichons-reims

Crystal Meth and Creme Brûlée: Still Day 3 in Paris

This one was supposed to slide through the net. One of those meals that didn’t have enough pictures to make it a post. It didn’t end in an epiphany or come with some powerful deeper meaning about humanity or the city of Paris or the people of France. Honestly, with the facts all laid out in front of me in bullet points, the whole experience pretty much boiled down to a nice walk and some creme brûlée.

It was a really nice walk though.

And don’t even get me started on that fucking creme brûlée.

So here it goes.

Paris By Night

A cobalt night had started to fall on Paris and the city was a velvet sheet with holes pricked in it, light spilling out of them. We were following my wife, Magell-lissa, through the winding alleys of the Marais in the twilight, four dark figures on nearly empty streets, winking in and out of existence in the honeyed glow of the shop windows. Yelp had pointed us in the direction of a place called Le Compas and we found it bustling on this quiet night. The air outside was patio temperature, but the cigarettes were out like swarms of fireflies in their outside seating area, so we opted for a table inside.

At our table, Melissa ordered a glass of Ricard from the waiter. I wouldn’t shut up about it since Roger Martinho told me it was one of the biggest things he missed about France. The waiter brought her a half full wine flute of it. It was the color of fresh ginger and it smelled like licorice. She managed to take a puckering slug of it before the waiter could commandeer her glass and explain that she was supposed to water it down.

The restaurant had the candlelight glow of the kind of bar that a mobster might own. Smoke coming in off the patio, hanging around the bulbs and if you did a chicken dance in your chair, you’d knock people unconscious on either side of you. There would be no chicken dancing this night. I don’t remember what I ordered, which says nothing about the quality of that meal (which I remember being excellent) and everything about the dessert that followed it. Creme brûlée is one of those dumb touristy things that I felt I had to try at least once while I was in Paris. Like a Guinness in Ireland or schnitzel in Germany, I pointed at it on my menu for the sole purpose of knocking it off a list and didn’t commit any thought to actually enjoying it until the first bite was in my mouth. My spoon crushed a crater into the surface of it, spiderwebs across the eggshell thin layer of carmalized sugar on the top. Still only half paying attention, I dug a groove in the custard below, dumped it into my blah-blah mouth and the good boy part of my brain went out like a light. Good boy brain knows what noises are appropriate to make in a crowded restaurant. Good boy brain knows that one should pace themselves when eating in polite company and that spoons are for scooping and not for licking obscenely.

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But those shards of sugar crunched between my teeth and that custard glazed out smooth and creamy acrossed my tongue and good boy brain hit the lever under his seat and was ejected from the cockpit trailing moans and eyerolls. I embarrassed my wife and I made my parents regret not getting me tested for stuff when my second grade teacher told them to and I’m pretty sure there’s a picture of my face at the hostess stand of Le Compas, warning them not to seat me in future. That’s on them though. Don’t make crystal meth if you don’t want people to take their clothes off in your driveway… or whatever. 

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Le Compas:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/le-compas-paris

 

An Alternative to Crayons: Day 3 in Paris

The people of Paris turned out for May Day in droves and it was a day for sirens and darting eyes. In the courtyard outside the Louvre, France’s Gendarme roamed in packs of 4, shoulder pads and stab vests, assault rifles at the low ready. The soldier part of my brain saw the city the way a mountaineer sees an avalanche in the making as people ran by us with bandannas over their mouths in the little coffee shop we’d holed up in. We were on foot from the Marais, at the end of a meandering line that led through the business district and over the Seine under a dusty grey sky with empty threats of rain. Shops were boarded up. Crowds were gathered near the government buildings. Later, two policemen would be set on fire by protesters as the buildup of tension and anger let go and came rushing down the mountain, and at that moment, sitting in our coffee shop watching the city go by with its guard up, we could feel it. 

Gendarme Police
Photo Credit: https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%95%E3%83%A9%E3%83%B3%E3%82%B9%E3%81%AE%E8%AD%A6%E5%AF%9F

We caught a cab to Montmartre just to escape the dread and the driver dropped us into a throng of people who had apparently had the same thought we had and gotten the fuck away from the city center. We pushed through the crowds of them, past shops full of knick knacks, through clouds of cigarette smoke. The bustle and energy of the place was a welcome respite from the eerie quiet of downtown, with its empty potential like a balloon about to pop. Midday found us at a dog park on a bench looking out over the city in all of its vastness. Beautiful and old. A wind was jostling the trees and pulling the shroud of cloud cover off the city, sunlight speckling buildings, blue skies like stripes on a grey tiger.

“I’m hungry,” Dad offered. It was our most common offering as a family in general. Burdens are not complainers for the most part. My dad re-broke his back and he didn’t know it until his legs literally started to give up on him. My mom almost died from chicken pox because she was busy taking care of sick babies and she didn’t address it until it took hold of her lungs. My grandmother had a root canal without anesthesia because she “didn’t like the way drugs made her feel.” But if we’re hungry, you’re gonna hear about it.

 

We began to scroll through our mental rolodexes for lunch suggestions, which should have been overflowing. I had spent weeks watching travel shows and scouring blogs about food in Paris. My parents had watched youtube videos about the city and its food and filled notebooks full of addresses and names. But with much of the city so boarded up, we were drawing blanks. We made some calls and got some answering machines. We visited websites and got holiday closure notices. Finally, I remembered a lunch I’d had almost a month ago in a Polynesian place in Seattle with Krishan, our friend Jackie and her friend, who was visiting from Bend, Oregon. I had mentioned my trip to Paris and Jackie’s friend lit up. She gave me suggestions that were like thoughtfully selected gifts just for me. Real places with fond memories attached to them. A fondue place that served wine out of baby bottles and a world renowned falafel place that could cure a hangover or just set you right in a general sense. She had written them down in careful handwriting in the notebook I keep in my pocket and I fished it out, there on that bench in Montmartre. The entry was easy to find, because it was neat and helpful and completely out of place amidst the craziness that is the rest of that notebook. Right next to “That muthafucka looks like he eats crayons…” (different day, different story) were the words:

 

“L’As Du Falafel”

 

I threw it out there. There was agreement. We dislodged ourselves from our quiet park bench and dove back into the hurricane of people roaring through Montmartre, in search of falafel.

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Down a staircase with a tram that ran along it, through choked streets. Middle Eastern men playing a shell game with black disks, cash changing hands as they shuffled and flipped. Cabs fording the rivers of people like alligators slow and predatory and the rain on a tin roof sensation of languages and music and new smells all around us as we made our way to the Marais, Melissa leading us through it all. I don’t know whether being a geography major in college made her a good map reader, or being a good map reader made her a geography major, but that little spitfire is fuckin Magellan even with a halfassed map in her hand. She held her phone out at the end of her arm and it pulled her along the streets and down alleys while we hustled behind her. A cobblestone path wound between buildings and we pressed up against the walls as cars rattled past us, rims rubbing against the narrow curbs. Fifty meters from our destination we smacked into a line of people who had made the same plans we had. There were a hundred something of them, hope on their faces in a gradient scale from the front of the line to the back. The closer you got, the more you could smell. The more you could see. There were men behind the counter, working with mechanical precision, loading pitas, manning fryers, changing out empties. Fire jumped out of pans, knives chattered on cutting boards.

Las Du Falafel Caroline S. Yelp
Photo Credit: Caroline S. /Yelp

Out on the street, 15 yards from the big show, a kid took our orders and our money. When he passed we realized that he wasn’t wearing anything that indicated he worked at this place and that there was a distinct possibility that he had just capitalized on the obvious pre-falafel delirium that we were exhibiting and cleverly robbed us. Fortunately, that was not the case. We approached the counter and handed the ticket the kid had given us to the maestro with the tongs. He nodded and began slapping ingredients into steaming pitas. His movements bordered on machine automation and I genuinely believe that if that man had a passion for building cars, he’d John Henry the Ford Production plant right out of the fucking market. Falafel, eggplant, sauces, cabbage, tomato, into the pita, into my hand. I floated away from that counter into a different Paris than the one I’d woken up to. The stress and the fear fell away. The sun was out and I was smooshing falafel into my face, little bits of it sticking to my cheeks and cascading down onto my hands. Crunchy, salty, fried chickpeas and smooth, bitter eggplant. Creamy sauce and soft pita. Cars whistled down the alley, drivers ogling us as we hunkered in the gutter, inches from their hubcaps, eating like raccoons from the garbage, probably thinking something along the lines of “ Those Mothafucka’s look like they eat crayons…”
Las Du Fallafel

 https://yelp.to/qTKq/EnJk4CrKWD 

A Taste of Something Substantial: Day 2 in Paris

The sun rose on that second morning and found Dad and I wandering the streets of Paris in the eerie silence of an early Sunday in search of bread. Alleys that had been clogged with busy looking people the evening before sat hollow and cavernous in the pastel light and we combed them with our heads pointed up at the rooftops, noses working busily, on the prowl for baking smells. Sunday morning is a notoriously quiet time in the 13th and we found more closed signs than open ones. Nevertheless, we found our way back to the apartment with a bag full of baguettes and pastries.

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“What did you guys get?” Mom, cradling coffee on the couch.

“I don’t know.”

“Well what’s in the bag?”

“I don’t know.”

 

Things were in the bag. Things from a bakery, which means bread-like things. The specifics though, eluded us. We’d wandered up to the counter of that lonely open bakery and the woman behind the counter, looming over her creations with the air of a lioness amidst her pride, had started asking questions in machine gun French. Words rattling out of her. We pointed at things, at anything. She bagged them. We threw Euros at her as we scurried out.


“What happened?” My wife, Melissa, from the bathroom, picking up the waver in my voice over the sound of a running sink.

“We panicked,” my dad said.

Panic would become a theme for the early part of that day. The sun sharp and sparkly over Paris as we walked the ever-filling streets to the Marais, dipping into exciting IMG_4653looking businesses with ancient sounding titles like cheesemonger and chocolatier, ogling exotic looking delicacies and withering under the experienced eyes of their purveyors, scampering out empty handed. Noon came upon us all dejected in a coffee shop off Rue de Turenne, sipping whatever we’d pointed at on our menus.


Even Melissa, who’d spent the weeks leading up to the trip, dutifully sponging up French from podcasts and movies and phrasebooks, found many nuances to the ordering process intimidating. Fortunately though, our salvation stood outside in a pink cotton trenchcoat.

 

“Now, when you order a croissant,” Lizzie said, her British accent standing starkly against the muddled consonants of French all around us. “ You probably want to stay away from one’s that are curled in at the corners.” She held up a counter-example. A flaky, bronzed croissant, shaped like an american football. “If the ends are curled in, it means it was probably made with margarine.” Our gaggle nodded, carefully in unison. “And that’s no good.” She concluded.

Lizzie, a half Chinese transplant from the UK, had come to Paris to learn the culinary arts. She was a chef at the very core of her. If she said it was no good, it was no good.

 

She slipped off to the counter of the busy boulangerie and left us to mill about amidst the delicacies. I found Allen, another member of our tour group, stashed away near the baguettes. He had white hair and a white mustache. There were thin rimmed glasses perched on his nose and he was a veteran husband. You could hardly tell he was hiding from his wife. In fact, if you didn’t know that they’d been traveling together for the last 4 weeks, or seen her scowl at him every time he opened his mouth, you might honestly believe that he was over there in the corner studying rolls. He was that good.

“What do you do in Toronto?” I asked him.

His voice was hushed, but casually so. “I’m retired. I was a high school vice principal.”

“What brings you to Paris?”

“Oh the wife and I are just traveling around, enjoying the sights.”

“A spy?!” I said it like he just confessed, and he blew his cover with a belly laugh.

“Allen!” His wife barked.

Fromagerie Jouannualt, and Lizzie was pointing at bricks of moldy wonder behind glass, saying,

“Is there anything any of you have been wanting to try?”

She was carrying a bag of treats from the last place. People flowed around her where she stood in the center of the bustle like a stone in a stream. Undaunted by their hurry. A fixture of the street.

“I’ve always wanted to try that really runny cheese,” my dad offers. A few members of the group who weren’t as accustomed to his flights of culinary fancy gave him a once over, but they can fuck right off, because this was an adventure and if you’re going to eat weird cheese in Paris, it might as well be good weird cheese. And if you’re going to get good weird cheese, Fromagerie Jouannualt is the place to do it. The displays behind theIMG_4667 glass looked like the set of Fragel Rock, bulbous and grand and storied. Lizzie threw my dad a nod of approval and waded through the crowd to the counter, her pink coat cutting through them like a flare in the night. She was back moments later with a fuller bag of goodies, saying, “A good fromager is a friend to the community.” She motioned at the man she’d just spoken to, nodding carefully now at the couple in front of him, calculating. Lizzie continued, “You don’t just walk into his shop and tell him what cheeses you want. You tell him what you’re doing, how many people you’re doing it with and what you like, and he’ll help you figure out what you need.”  The fromager pointed to rounds of sepia cheese that looked like the pages of an old tome, and the couple in front of him nodded.

“For example, you might come to the fromager and say, ‘I am going to the park with three or four friends and we’re going to have a picnic with charcuterie and a bottle of red wine. I like sharp cheeses’ and the fromager would bring out 4 or 5 different things for you to-”

Allen’s wife raised her hand. An angry looking hunk of cheese in the shape of a mortar shell had her absolutely transfixed. “That,” Lizzie said, “Is called the devil’s suppository.”

I am gripped with a sophomoric barb of laughter, imagining satan himself duckwalking into this place, and the cheese monger wagging a finger at him, saying, “I’ve got just what you need.”

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Lizzie herded us all into Bibovino as a light rain began to fall on the Marche Des Enfantes Rouge. The sky had taken on a charcoal swirl and umbrellas snapped open in the market place, bodies wall to wall moving. At tables in the back of the boutique wine shop, we gathered as Lizzie unpacked the delicacies that she’d collected along our walk. Breads from the boulangerie, cheeses from the Jouannualt, charcuterie and other treats from different stops. She paired them all with wine from Bibovino, which, she explained, stored most of their wine in boxes in the spirit of sustainability. We ate and drank and laughed as the city of Paris shuffled by a window spattered with rain, Lizzie guiding us along. “Do you taste the nuttiness of this cheese?” “Do you notice anything about the texture of this baguette?”

We staggered from the wine bar tamped full of cheese and bread and wine and something more substantial than those things. 

The next morning the sun came up and found me wandering the hauntingly empty streets below our apartment. Those same streets that had driven Dad and I back to our quiet kitchen with our arms full of whatever and our tails between our legs on a normal Sunday. Today was May Day and apprehension hung low and heavy like a fog on the city. Convoys of armored vehicles en route to the protests near the Louvre. Gendarme in full battle rattle, FAMAS assault rifles at the low ready. Shuttered shop windows. People only in transit.

It was enough to leave any tourist feeling out of place.

But I was no longer any tourist.

A boulangerie on a wonky side street caught my eye as I passed it, because a local had just left it at a trot with baguettes sticking out of his paper bag. Lizzie had said to look for that. I marched through the door and the baker sized me up, but I was busy. I pointed at croissants behind the glass, “Du Buerre?” I said.

“Oui.” she fired back.

I ordered 4 croissants, (made with butter, not those curvy margarine fakers), 2 chocolate croissants, and a baguette. She said pleasant sounding things to me in rapid french that I didn’t understand and I paid her with my head held high and slipped back onto those quiet streets on that tense morning, positively oozing with that final thing that Lizzie had given us…

Confidence.

 

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Next week: May Day in Paris…

 

LINKS:

Paris By Mouth Food Tours:

I would HIGHLY suggest using this tour group. The tours were intimate and incredibly informative. Big props to our guide Lizzie.

https://parisbymouth.com/paris-food-tours/

https://parisbymouth.com/taste-of-the-marais/

Fromagerie Jouannault:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/fromagerie-jouannault-paris

Bibovino:

https://www.bibovino.fr/

 

 

 

Happy, Regardless: Day 1 in Paris

For the next few weeks, Kellen Burden will be covering his adventures in Paris, Germany and Switzerland, with his wife and parents. Together, they will eat. They will adventure. They will sing and dance. They will be asked to stop. 

 

I come to in an all white room on an all grey couch in an all new city. I smell of dried sweat and disinfectant. My legs are wobbly and my vision is prone to bursts of static like a TV with a bad antenna, but I’m lucid and I am comfortable, free of the maddening tweep of medical equipment and the dizzying spin of a brain gone sideways. I right myself with effort, put my barefeet on the hardwoods. Paris like a row of teeth through the porthole window.

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“Hey buddy.” My mom’s voice, pointed at me from the kitchen where I find her draped over the counter, looking worried. “How you feeling?”

Say, “Hungry.”

“You want some scrambled eggs? A piece of toast?”

When you are recovering from a hospital stay, especially one that involved a good deal of vomiting in a less than clean hospital, any doctor, mother, or common sense enthusiast will tell you that you need plain food and rest. I am in none of those professions. 

Ten minutes later finds us weaving through a crowded street in the 3rd Arrondissement with its youth and energy juxtaposed against its timelessness. Selfies and cheesemongers, Nikes and cobblestones.

Feeling squirrely in the foreign streets, I try to remember all the travel tips I’d read before the nap and hospital and the plane.

  • Don’t smile at people, they’ll think you’re up to something.
  • Don’t wear shirts with words on them. It’ll distinguish you as an American.
  • Watch out for pickpockets

A man bumps into me. Is my wallet still there? Look down. Ah shit, I’m wearing a shirt that says BAZINGA on it. My wallet’s still there. Smile at the man. Three for three.

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My dad points out a restaurant patio smushed full of happy looking people and I steer my one man shit show into it.

The host stands before me and I’m supposed to tell him something to indicate how many of us there are and whether we want to sit inside or out, but I don’t have any idea where to start and he’s being patently unhelpful in that department. A silence stretches out between us that would have been a testament to his patience if it hadn’t felt so hostile and vaguely enjoyable to him. I squirm. I should have rested. I should have had eggs.

But then mom jumps in, with some admirable improvised French linguistics and the four of us hack our way through an otherwise beautiful language to a table in the failing sunlight.

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“How you doing?” Mom asks.

The waiter brings a bottle of water for the table and I glug it like a psychopath as though it isn’t for the table.

“I’m good.”

“Oh yeah?” Dad says. There’s a challenge in it that isn’t baseless and he’s right on the verge of telling me that we don’t have to overdo it. That it’s okay to just take it easy. But then his eyes flick down to the menu and go banging open like a firework and instead he says,

“Ooh! Escargot!”

My stomach makes a sound like a car trying to start on an empty tank.

I spent the last 5 hours wretching into anything that anyone handed me. Nausea like deep rolling waves on an angry sea, trying to turn me inside out. I’ve always wanted to try escargot, but honestly, I don’t know if I’m ready to start cracking that whip at such a freshly soothed bronco. Smoke wafts through the seating area. Blowing in like sea fog from all directions. Tables pushed oppressively close to one another, foreign conversation like birds in the woods.

The waiter comes for drink orders and we point at our menus and he’s gone before we can turn the page to the food selections, but not before Dad can say “escargot.”

In the breaks between the plumes of tar smoke, I smell myself, stinky and stale anIMG_5165d sterilized. Sirens somewhere far away, down an alley of cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings.

“How was your flight?” I ask mom.

“Not bad, until we landed,” she says.

My wife started texting them from the plane when it seemed like I was having a stroke, but they were in the air too and their wifi hadn’t been activated. When they finally touched down in Paris and turned their phones on, the texts had come cascading down like tropical rain.

Kellen’s really sick.

We’re calling some medics to meet us on the tarmac.

We’re going to the Charles de Gaul clinic.

They’re calling an ambulance to take him to the emergency room.

“Sorry about that,” I offer. This was supposed to be their trip. We were just tagging along with them for the first half of it, and I’d thanked them for their kindness by fucking everything up right off the blocks.

“You don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be sick or not,” Mom says.

“Yeah, plus, this is an adventure,” Dad adds. “How often do you get to see the inside of a filthy hospital in a different country? And now, look!” he says, “Snails!” The escargot hits the table and the waiter is gone again. 6 snails with shells the color of the buildings around us, oozing pesto and steam.

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Dad descends on them with a little fork. He’s smiling. Mom keeps her distance, but she’s smiling too.

So I smile. I take up a snail fork and I coax one of those rich little bastards out of his shell and chew it noisily and defiantly in my fogbank of cigarette smoke burnt brown by the setting sun, because Dad’s right. This is an adventure.

The rest of that meal is mediocre. A tourist trap of a restaurant that we walked right into. The steak is tough and the fries are greasy and yet it is arguably one of the most important meals of the trip, because it is the meal that sets the tone. During that dinner, we eat bravely and with abandon. During that dinner we do not complain. During that dinner we decide that we will be happy, regardless.

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A Tale of Two Cookies

 

I was sitting at a table in Paris, with two sets of cookies in front of me. The set on the right crossed international waters in a carry-on bag, sheathed in Styrofoam, wrapped in plastic, undeclared at customs,had I been conscious to declare them. Mango, Tiramisu, Coconut and Cinnamon roll. The set on the left came in a monogrammed plastic bag at the tail end of a genuine ordeal, my body in repair, brain still skipping like a thumped record. Rose, passion fruit, rhubarb-strawberry. The flavors, like the men who produced them, are varied and rich and a little wild and the question I was supposed to be asking myself is, “which cookies are superior?” A seed that was planted almost a month ago in a train station food court, in my hometown of Tacoma Washington, by a man who doesn’t fuck around when it comes to macarons.

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Roger Martinho was making one of his signature Liege dessert waffles that day, holed up behind his counter in the Freighthouse Square train station. There was a lull between the gouts of commuters and we were talking into it, over the sounds of construction noises outside.  

“You are going to France?” Roger pulled the emphasis up on ‘going’, accent chewy at the edges, run through with french like marbled chocolate. He comes down hard on the ‘L’s” even in words like ‘talk’, but he leaves so much style in it that you can’t help but wonder if he isn’t doing it on purpose.

“Yes.” I said to him.”I wanted to come by and see if you had any suggestions.”

Roger lifts the lid on his Belgian Waffle press. Flips the golden treat within.

Roger is the man to ask about France. He fought for France. Jumped out of airplanes into Kosovo by night. Roger has scars for France and pain for France and love for France, in volumes. While he drizzles chocolate over the waffle he was cooking, he tells me about the coffee shops that I have to visit and the kabob place I should try and then there’s a flash of mischief in his eyes and he says,

“Have you heard of Pierre Hermes?”

I have not.

“He is a famous Patissier in Paris.” Roger says. He steps away from the banana he’s cutting. Lays his heavy forearms on the glass case that fronts his counter, shimmering with multicolored macarons.

Says,

“I went to culinary school with him and he has shops all over the world now. In Paris and in Japan and New York.”

A train unloads into the station, foot traffic like an incursion and Roger falls back to his knife and banana.

A line forms behind me, ravaged by the commute, jonesing and in no mood for the antics of a chatty Cathy like myself. I step off center and Roger says,

“Take my cookies with you when you go. Try them in Pierre’s store. Tell me what you think.”

“Do you think yours are better?” I asked. The crowd had a current that swept me towards the door.

“I don’t know.” He said. You tell me. Hung in the silence that followed.

It may have been that distant fire in his eyes or maybe I’m just a sucker for a grail quest, but I left that station knowing that I wouldn’t be getting on a plane without those cookies in my bag. I went home that night on a mission.

 

The internet has a lot to say about Pierre Herme. So does the New York Times, andIMG_5087 the Guardian. Often, reading about Pierre Herme is like pulling a page out of a Kerouac. The wildness of character. The hyperbole.The legend they build up around him. 4th generation Alsatian baker, prowling through his many establishments like a shark through a school of guppies, sniffing for blood in the water. A dropped glass. An untucked shirt. A violation. He only wears black and people who write about him throw words like “magician” and “King” and “Emperor” around, and not without cause. Herme’s been credited with revivals and revolutions in dessert culture around the world. His macarons have been argued to be the absolute best, hands down, on the planet and the reasons for this are well stated. Only the freshest ingredients go into his pastries. The flavors he creates are produced with an attention to detail that errs on obsession. Strawberry macaroons effervescent with fresh basil and passionfruit absolutely crackling with tartness. He was awarded Best Pastry Chef of 2016 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy andChevalier de la Légion d’honneur” by Jacques Chirac in May 2007. His dessert restaurants and shops are regarded to be some of the finest on the planet and I in my feverish search to understand the man, I visited them from my laptop. I ate his food through the mouths of yelp users. I spoke to him on Youtube. I became engrossed.

 

The trip loomed closer.

 

When my paperbacks were bought, Netflix movies downloaded, sundries piled by the door, I made the trip down to Roger’s kiosk which was hanging in another mid-rush lull. The lulls have grown longer since the city of Tacoma took an axe to the station and lopped it in half. We’ve been assured that the renovations will be magnificent and invigorating, but for the time being, the streets are loud and the parking is scarce and the businesses of the food court are struggling.I bought 5 cookies from Roger that day. A mango, because he was proud of it. A coconut, because Herme didn’t have anything like that. A Cinnamon Roll, because it was unique. A tiramisu, because it was Roger’s favorite. And finally, a Rose Raspberry, because my wife loves them and if I stop at Roger’s without picking one up, my keys might not work in the door when I get home.

Standing there with the cookies in my hand, like the sword I was supposed to test on the dragon, I asked Roger what he thought of Pierre and his cookies.

 

IMG_1009I’ve spent a good deal of time at Roger’s counter. I’ve watched his confections plant the seeds of a smile on faces where they should not have grown. These cookies were the only thing that kept my wife on her feet at the end of a ten hour day and a 2 hour commute. This train station is the first place I take visitors from out of town, when I’m trying to sell them on the city I love.

 

So, when I learned about Herme, and how popular and revered he was, I couldn’t help but think that luck and hyperbole had a lot to do with it. Roger went to the same school Pierre did, at the same time. He took classes alongside him. Yes, they interned at different places, which can certainly affect the quality of training you get, but having been privy to Roger’s food, work ethic and technique, I certainly couldn’t find any holes in his abilities. So, their training was at least comparable, which made sense, because their philosophies echoed one another’s as well. Both men seem dedicated to producing an affordable product, without sacrificing quality. They’ve both said in interviews that reigning in the sweetness is important, and both men stand behind the ingredients they use like battlements on a beach head, ingredients, which, from what I could tell were very similar too. Yet, here Roger was at a train station, and Pierre was an international mogul.

Why?

My interview with Roger in May of 2016 shed some light on this for me. He had actually spent several years traveling through South America, working in fine dining establishments. He’d been the executive pastry chef for the Essential Baking Company in Seattle and at a posh restaurant called BA Bar on Capitol Hill, so his trajectory wasn’t all that different from Herme’s. Had he kept at it, he might very well have a chain of boutiques scattered across the planet, journalists slathering after him.   But Roger had decided to hit the brakes. He told me that he missed seeing his customers. Missed being on the ground floor. In 2015, Roger left BA Bar and started selling his macarons at farmers markets around the Puget Sound, talking to people face to face, looking for the right place to settle down, which is how he’d ended up in Tacoma.

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So when I asked him about Pierre, I think I was expecting rivalry. Fire. Maybe, disdain.

But Roger’s answer surprised me a little.

“The man is amazing.” He said. “The flavors he creates, the things he does… they’re great.”

He went on.

“To create a flavor, you have to go to the place. You have to find it with your eyes closed.” Roger went afar, searching for the words and the one’s he finally found, held onto me for weeks.

“A true professional tastes the food where it is, not just the flavor of it, but everything about it.” He motioned around him, like he was trying to draw the atmosphere into his nose. The essence of the people and the room. The noises and the feelings. ” You combine it all and recreate it. Pierre understands this.”

There was respect in Roger’s words. Reverence, even.

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Still, when I boarded my plane the next day with that sleeve of cookies in my bag, deep down, I wanted Roger’s to be better. In my dumb, young, American way, I wanted the underdog to come out swinging and win. I wanted humble, train station Roger Martinho to wipe the floor with Pierre Herme, “the Kitchen Emperor”. I wasn’t going to let that change the truth, but I was going to do everything in my power to make it a fair fight. When my plane landed I would make a quick trip from the airport to Herme’s shop in the 13th arrondissement. I would buy some cookies of comparable flavors and taste them side by side right there in the place, and do my best to keep my bias out of the equation, by knowing that it was back there. That was the plan.

 

Then, 6 hours into my 10 hour flight, everything went sideways. I lost vision in my right eye. My right arm went numb, then the left, alternating like cheap Christmas lights. I needed to know how much longer the flight was but my wiring started to short circuit. I scratched the words, ‘which longer?’ into a magazine cover and slid it to my wife and then the vomiting started and a little voice in my head whispered, you’re having a stroke, and I fell down a chasm in myself. I passed out. Time went by in snaps and flashes. People were talking to me, but I couldn’t answer. The plane was dark and full of people. The plane was light and empty. I was in a wheelchair. People were asking me questions in French. Airport clinic. Needles. Ambulance. Hospital. Needles. My wife was crying. Days seemed to go by. Weeks maybe.

Arduously,  I came back, like climbing a rope to the surface of myself. The half empty bag of saline may have had something to do with that. I was spinning and feral and disoriented and the vomiting and medication may have had something to do with that.

“How long was I out?” the only complete sentence I’d said since the plane.
Relief like the first bite into a cookie on my wife’s face.

“Few hours.” She said.

Impossible. “No,” I said. “Since the plane.”

“Few hours.” she said.

 

It wasn’t a stroke. We’re not sure exactly what happened but our best guess is a hemiplegic migraine. If you’re curious what the start of one looks like, watch the worst day of this poor lady’s career play out. They’re no fun, but they’re also not a stroke, which is cause for celebration.

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They released me, barefoot, into the hospital parking lot with a pocket full of amoxicillin and codeine packets and my wife and my parents and I stood in the afternoon light and waited for a cab and everything was different.

For days, I rested. My vision was still squirrely and my body was still weak, but I recovered on French cooking and when I finally made my way to Pierre Herme’s shop in the 13th, everything was still different. Sober is a good word for it. Grounded. Deflated. The epicness had drained from my cookie quest in the hours of peril and fear and uncertainty and I was left with a job to do.

 

IMG_4701I found Herme’s shop down a cobblestone alley, jammed with people like me, lost but not particularly upset about it. The inside of the place was tasteful and clean and decorated a bit like a jewelry shop. Rows of macarons sparkling under glass. I bought three cookies, which were slipped into a monogrammed bag by a teenage girl with a pair of tongs. One rose, because I was very familiar with that flavor of Roger’s, a passion fruit and chocolate, because I had a fruit and chocolate macaron to compare it to, and one rhubarb, passion fruit and strawberry because there was a line forming and I panicked. Pierre Herme wasn’t there. I carried the cookies back to the apartment we had rented because I had completely forgotten to bring Roger’s with me.

 

So, there I was, sitting at the breakfast table of an apartment in Paris. There were two sets of cookies in front of me and the question I was supposed to be asking myself is, “which cookies are superior?”

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But the first bite into Roger’s favorite macaron was a gut punch. It had gone stale. All of them had gone stale in the days I was recovering. I pushed them aside and I ate Pierre’s to the bleating tune of Mayday sirens on the streets of Paris in the pale light of a sunset against the pallid buildings outside.

They were excellent.

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The passion fruit sparkled, tart amidst bitter chocolate going off like a bomb at the back of my tongue, whooshing out my nose. The rose was subtle and aromatic. I’ve heard it said that Herme works with sugar the way most work with salt, just a touch as needed and I could taste it in every bite. The Rhubarb and strawberry was fresh and delightful and measured to perfection. I ate them all slowly and with reverence in this city across the world with it’s new smells and sounds and identity and the things that Roger said about flavor came back to me.

 

About understanding the depth of it, and what good chefs do with it. Suddenly, I felt naive for thinking that I could compare things this complex just because they had the same name and some of the same ingredients. Good cooking is about being so invested in the place and the moment, that you put the people who taste your food in that place and moment with you. These men are in such different places, having such different moments, that once you’re drawn into their confections, it’s like you’re eating entirely different things. Pierre’s flavors were perfect for Paris. Roger’s for Tacoma. Herme’s shop is the kind of place in which  you might find a Michelin star, but not anyone who knows your name. Roger might remember your birthday when you approach his counter, but he’s still in a train station food court. In their element though, these cookies are king. 

So, I sat there at that table, watching the sun fall against the jagged Parisian skyline, chewing fervently on the last bites of Parisian perfection and when that was done, I ate Roger’s stale cookies too, thinking that these two men had worked very hard to deliver me into an enjoyable moment, and that I might as well enjoy it.

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Written by:
Kellen Burden

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Herm%C3%A9

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/feb/25/macarons-pierre-herme

 

La Waffletz on Yelp:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/la-waffletz-and-macaron-station-tacoma-5

La Waffletz Website:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/la-waffletz-and-macaron-station-tacoma-5

Pierre Herme’s Site:

http://www.pierreherme.com/