I just rented a Velib to go and grab a baguette.
Now that spring is here and the sun is out, I'm seizing every chance I get to bike around Paris. The bike I selected this afternoon had about 30% brake functionality. That's a good Velib, too good to risk returning at a kiosk that might then malfunction and not register that you returned your bike, as happened to me earlier this week. I'm terrified by the prospect of having to call the Velib office (I shudder even to imagine the place) and explain to someone in my halting and accented French that I did, I truly did, return the bike as per the rules. I could already hear the sigh of disbelief. I also couldn't risk returning the bike and trying to find another one when I had just half an hour before Max got home from school to bike 1.7 kilometers and back. I had promised get him a "religieuse" or double chocolate eclair, for an end of the week treat today. There are closer bakeries to our apartment. There's at least one bakery per block, sometimes two. But I wanted to visit this particular bakery, in the 9th arrondissement, because I'd learned that it won the "best baguette in Paris" contest in 2007. Having already frequented the bakeries that won the "best baguette in Paris" contests in 2003 and in 2011, I'm eager to keep going, to find out which deserves the grand prix d'or for the city.
I found the bakery in question, bought Max his eclair, a small lemon tart (because those need sampling too) and one baguette, stashed it all in the Velib's handy front basket, and biked home, making good time due to those faulty brakes, feeling damn Parisian as I watched my bread bounce around. It's a Parisian cliche matched only by the beret. But I'm not wearing "hobo headgear," as Max calls it.
Before we came to France, I went through a few dark months where the hassles of dealing with uprooting our life and plunking it down over here seemed so overwhelming that I questioned whether the move was even worth it. Everything was hard, and everything was hard twice. We had to find a subletter for our apartment back home, and find a sublet to rent over here, figure out how to pull Max out of school for a year without losing his spot, and find a school that would accept him for that long over here, convince my work that I could do my job okay from here, and convince the French government that I wasn't going to be working at all, so that we could get our long term stay visas.
My early encounters with French bureaucracy at the embassy in San Francisco were daunting, accurately foreshadowing the joys of dealing with a massive and often ineffective government. You should've seen how the woman at the embassy coquettishly laughed when we handed her our visa applications over which we'd labored for weeks, turning us away because we hadn't copied and properly collated every document into three piles and had instead created one pile for the whole family. Given that it was a family application, the mistake seemed understandable to me, but she didn't have the time to make piles! She was extremely busy! And how crazy we were not to realize that we clearly needed a third copy of our notarized promise not to seek employment in France, and our Parisian apartment's rental contract, for six-year-old Max! (Where did she think he'd be living? In a pied a terre of his own?)
I'd be lying if I said that I kept my cool either during or after that appointment, ranting about how I highly doubted we'd ever get this visa, and even if we did, were we sure we wanted to live in the country that had produced this beastly woman who seemed to derive great pleasure from showing us the error of our ways rather than helping us? Sick of listening to me complain, Matt finally said in exasperation, "To make all of this hassle feel worth it, you'd better figure out something about France that you're looking forward to, something you're really excited to discover there, even if it's only the bread."
I remember this comment because it took me by surprise. The bread? That was supposed to be the big pay off? Now Matt is not a "foodie," and bread was pretty low on his list of things he was looking forward to discovering in France. As long as the food is decent, he seems perfectly content eating more or less the same thing every day--the dietary version of his white shirt/dark jeans or black pants uniform--leaving him more time to focus on other, presumably more important things. Plus, bread had earned a bad name in our house. For about a year, we'd been trying to eat as little of it (and other starches) as possible, on the "Dukkan diet," which originated over here of all places. Well, no wonder. The results were hard to ignore. Bread does indeed make you fat, even if it's simply because it tastes so good that you can't stop eating it, whereas few people reach for yet another chicken breast.
Matt wasn't the only person who cited bread as a major plus of living in Paris. My friend Maria, who'd lived here for many years with her family, happened to be visiting San Francisco right when we were dealing with the visa nightmare, and she too mentioned that the bread here was better than anyplace else. "Or so they say," she added (herself a carb avoider).
I considered abstaining from carbs here in France. Or at least limiting them. But life is short, and our time here is shorter. Also, life in Paris is expensive, and the baguette is one notable exception to that rule (along with wine, government subsidized to keep the vintners going).
It turns out that baguettes are required to follow certain rules in order to earn the name. A law from 1933 decrees that a "baguette tradition," the beautifully irregular ones with pointy ends, can contain just 4 ingredients: flour, leavening, water and salt. They rarely cost more than 1.40 (or about $2) and usually they're just 1.20. The best way to get rid of pocket change that I know of. Max likes a pain au chocolat after school (who doesn't?) and there's a decent bakery (though no awards have come its way) halfway between the library where I work in the day and his school. On the way to pick him up, I'll often grab a baguette (or two) along with his pain au chocolat. Inevitably, we end up tearing into it long before we make it home. Sometimes finishing it.
Different people look for different things in a baguette. You can request one that's "bien cuite" (well done) or "pas trop cuite" (on the pale side). We like the one from that bakery near his school because the crust is fairly pale without being underdone, a light caramel color, and the insides are springy and moist, almost like the chewiness of a bagel but less dense. (There are bagel stores in Paris now too, but the bagels taste wrong, apparently because the French are highly reluctant to boil bread). All of this talk about something so seemingly uniform, reminds me of living in Japan, where people endlessly discussed and debated which prefecture had the best rice. I mean rice, baguettes, we're talking about the plainest, whitest foods imaginable. But Matt should understand. He of the self-imposed uniform, who derives much pleasure from noticing the distinctions between white button-down shirts that others with a less trained eye would find identical.
He knows me well, and he was characteristically prescient when he suggested that bread might just become my raison d'etre here. I mean I do think about other things, I really do, but it's fun to have a reason to take a long bike ride through Paris on a sunny afternoon, and judging by the fact that the baguette I brought home today is already gone (and it's not 5 pm yet) that bakery deserved its award.
Amusingly, I was researching baguettes when I came across two interesting facts.
1. The baguette as we know it took shape (quite literally) thanks to one of the government's many laws designed to protect workers. In October of 1919, a law was passed forbidding bakers of bread and pastry from working between ten in the evening and four in the morning. Due to its thinness, the baguette could be prepared and baked in less time than more traditional loaves.
2. Just today, the paper included a front page article about an 80 page report that came out critiquing the French government for upholding 400,000 "norms," rules that public bodies and private businesses must uphold, going to "absurd and costly" lengths and hurting the economy. They say, "The last time a French norm was scrapped was in 1789."
According to this article, one of these "norms" is the rule dictating the width of a baguette.