When I was a girl, I learned that the world was a much bigger place than the block of houses on which I lived. My grandparents, and those of my friends, spoke different languages, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Hungarian, Gaelic, German, Lithuanian, Norwegian, and French, among others. They told stories of hardship that drove them onto ships and trains looking for better lives, regaled us with stories of magical places, and stuffed us with exotic food. I wanted to see and hear and taste and understand them all.
On the cover of my first French language textbook was a photo of the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, that medieval engineering marvel off the coast of Normandy. It was something from a fairy tale, perched on a rock, isolated by water during especially high tides. I placed my 14-year old hand over the picture, scanning it into my brain through my palm.
During my sophomore year in college, we read Henry Adams’ Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres in a western European art and history class. I scanned Adams’ description into my brain with the image and carried them until 1989, when I planned a long-awaited, first trip to France with The Veterinarian for a medical conference.
“Here’s our itinerary,” I showed him my plans. “On Saturday, we fly into Charles de Gaulle airport and take the Air France bus right to the conference hotel. Then, on Monday, we meet up with a French Rail tour which will take us to Normandy.”
“What?” he asked. “Normandy isn’t near Paris, is it?”
“Well, no, it isn’t,” I explained. “That’s why we have to take the train.”
“How long is this going to take?” I could tell he was skeptical.
“It’s a 10-hour tour.”
“10 hours on a tour?!”
“Sometimes, we’ll be on the train and sometimes, on a bus, and we get lunch in a medieval restaurant.”
“Are we going to see the D-Day beaches?” He brightened a bit.
“No, we’re going to see the Mont-Saint-Michel,” I explained. His face was blank. “You know? The abbey on the island in the English Channel?” He was unimpressed.
“Why are we going all the way west to Normandy when the conference is in Burgundy in the east?”
“Because,” I sighed and fixed him with my steeliest glare, “I’ve wanted to see the Mont-Saint-Michel all my life, and I am not going to France and not seeing it. I may never get there again.” He knew when to quit and let the subject drop.
The previous year, we had taken a similar BritRail tour in England and Scotland, a perfectly delightful way to cover a lot of a country in the fewest number of days, so I didn’t understand his peevishness.
Our Air France flight introduced us to our first experience française. The flight attendants were chic, the food and wine sublime, even in economique. After the cheese plate and dessert were served, they brought coffee, cognac, and squares of the most divine dark chocolate that I had ever tasted. I let mine melt on my tongue until it coated every part of my mouth.
“You aren’t going to eat that chocolate, are you?” I asked The Veterinarian.
“Yes, I’m going to eat it all. You shouldn’t have eaten yours so fast.”
“But, it’s sooo good.”
“Madame, would you care for another chocolat?” The flight attendant magically appeared and presented a box under my nose. Not wanting to be the piggish Americaine, I limited myself to two more of the little wrapped squares, which I tucked securely in my purse.
“Ah, oui, s’il vous plaît. Et merci!” I practiced my best French.
“Aren’t you the lucky one?” The Veterinarian smirked.
“Yes, and I’m going to find this chocolat and buy some to take home.”
Upon arrival in Paris, we went straight to our hotel, a modern high-rise in the business district, not especially romantic, but we were exhausted, and our room had a spectacular view of Paris. No matter which way I lay on the bed, I could see the Eiffel Tower, either through the window or perfectly reflected in the mirrored closet doors. After a brief nap, we set out to explore the city of my dreams. I dressed in chic and practical black, and he wore a tweed sport coat.
“Let’s go to the Tour Eiffel first, so we can see all of Paris,” we decided. The Métro station’s map of multi-colored train lines and stops wasn’t nearly as daunting as we had expected.
“Now,” I said to The Veterinarian, “go to the window over there and ask for ‘deux billets, s’il vous plaît,’ and hand them the money.”
He nodded, walked about three feet, stopped abruptly, and turned to me.
“Wait a minute,” he shook his head. “I don’t speak French. You’re the one who speaks French. You buy the tickets.”
Merde! He’d found me out. I was secretly terrified that I didn’t really speak French intelligibly. Everyone told horror stories about the French mocking American tourists, and I wasn’t sure that my ego or my childhood fantasies could take it. But he was right, and, if I was ever going to speak French properly to a French person, I might as well try it out in an anonymous subway station, where the clerks were probably rude to everyone.
I timidly approached the window. When the bored clerk looked up, I made my request and slid my francs into the till. Without a word, he counted out the two tickets and my change. Amazed, I whispered, “Merci, Monsieur.” He went back to his newspaper.
“See?” The Veterinarian laughed. “That was easy. He understood you.”
“Oh, God,” I was on the verge of hyperventilating, “I’m not sure I can do that again. Too much stress.”
At the Tour Eiffel, we got in line and easily purchased our tickets. I used the same French phrase, and the clerk answered me in English. Ok. It was obvious that I was a non-native speaker of French, but I was communicating in a foreign language. We rode up Gustave Eiffel’s elevators to the top, a real steampunk experience of late 19th-century ironwork and gears and cables with glimpses of the ground and Paris and faces.
“I’m starving,” The Veterinarian complained. “I’ve got to eat. Let’s go to that brasserie on the second floor.” Actually, I recall a little more arguing about exactly where we were going to eat, but, after looking longingly at the menu of the Tour’s Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant, we headed for its much cheaper stepsister.
“You do the ordering,” he said, when our waiter appeared. I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. She wore the traditional black pants, crisp white shirt, and long white apron of French waiters, her blonde hair in an elegant chignon. I felt like the street sweeper.
“Je voudrais le steak frites, et mon mari…” I began.
“Le steak frites. Beefsteak with fried potatoes,” she interrupted.
“Uh, oui,” I replied. “Et mon mari voudrait le poulet rotî, s’il vous plaît.”
“Le poulet rotî. Roast chicken.” she said.
“Uh, oui, merci.”
“Eh, bien, Madame, Monsieur,” The waiter gave a slight nod, smiled pleasantly, and left the table.
“Oh, no,” I moaned, “she was correcting my pronunciation.”
“No,” The Veterinarian replied, “it sounded the same to me. Didn’t you notice that she wasn’t writing down the order? She was repeating it, so she would remember it.” He even became bold enough to order wine in English, and we settled into our first meal in Paris, right through to the Tarte aux Pommes.
When our alarm went off at 6 the next morning, our jet-lag was so bad we could hardly focus to dress ourselves, find the Métro, and get to the train station for the tour’s 7 o’clock departure. The Veterinarian was mollified by a boulangerie in the station with heavenly coffee.
“This had better be worth it,” he mumbled through his croissant.
Our group boarded the sleek Train Grand Vitesse (TGV), one of those high-speed modes of transportation enjoyed by the rest of the civilized world that makes the U.S. look like it’s still in the horse-and-buggy age. Soon, we were zipping along the seamless rail. The faster the train went, the smoother the ride became. In my mind, I was hurtling from the future into the past.
At LeMans, the famous racing town, we disembarked and boarded a bus, which began to wind its way through the bucolic Norman countryside to the coast. Just before noon, the bus turned onto a narrow road, and we could see the spire of the church atop the rock rise into view. The one-time abbey and some-time prison looked exactly like the photo on my old textbook, but even more mysterious, as it grew out of the rock. In places, it was impossible to tell where the rock ended and the abbey’s foundation, built from the same stone, began. The bus let us out at the end of the causeway, and we followed our guide up the steep street, stopping for a lunch of one of the town’s famous, and famously overpriced, puffy omelettes.
Just before one o’clock, we made our way past a long line of tourists to the ancient wooden door. To the side, a smaller door opened, and a hand reached out with an enormous iron key, which our guide accepted and opened the enormous wooden door for our group, closing it behind us. She returned the key.
“See? This is why we took this tour,” I hissed to The Veterinarian.
For about 15 minutes, our group was alone on the grounds, the wind off the English Channel whipping around us, as we walked through the cloister and into the reconstructed church and refectory. Although I had no idea what an abbey would look like, this one whispered ancient stories from the stone walls. You know how you read the “Harry Potter” books and imagined how Hogwarts would look, and when you saw the movie, it looked exactly like you pictured it? That was my experience, only I felt the prayers of the monks and the prisoners who had lived there.
At the end of the day, as we hurtled through the French countryside back to Paris, I thought I should just get on a plane and fly home. I had seen the Tour Eiffel. I had seen the Mont-Saint-Michel. I thought I had seen it all. Luckily, there were 10 more days, from the Château Clos de Vougeot to the tiled roofs of Beaune, a Swiss breakfast in Geneva, through the Mont Blanc Tunnel for lunch in Italy, and back to Chamonix for dinner. It was a whirlwind of eating and sightseeing and the inevitable day of crashing in our room, when we just couldn’t take one more day of dreams coming true.
On our last day, we took another train tour to Chartres to see the great cathedral with its famous labyrinth, another lunch in a quaint inn, and on to Versailles. That night, we crowned the trip with dinner on a Bateau Mouche, those barges that ply the Seine through the heart of Paris, to the delight of tourists and the bane of residents. It was a day of piety and indulgences of the not-so-religious kind.
The next morning, as we made our way through Charles de Gaulle airport, I realized that I had forgotten to the chocolates. I turned into a “gourmet” gift shop, and there it was, Valrhona, in small bars and in a large box. My love affair began in earnest, I must confess.
“We should get the large box of the little squares so we can share them, don’t you think?” I asked the Veterinarian, who shook his head at my indiscretion.
I handed over my credit card and stuffed the surprisingly heavy box into my carry-on, where it remained untouched, since we were served little squares with lunch on our flight home. It was the first thing I unpacked. I pulled it out and cut the seal. Inside the box was a foil wrapped package.
“Oh, I guess this is to make sure that the little squares stay fresh,” I thought. But, when I cut into the foil, there was a solid block of the finest chocolate that I had ever tasted. The aroma filled my head. I looked at the box. “70% guanaja chocolat. 3kg.” Yep, I had purchased a 6.5 pound solid block of chocolate.
“Whoa! What are we going to do with all of this?” I was shocked by what I had purchased.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” the Veterinarian replied. He pulled a metal mallet out of the drawer and smacked off one corner of the block and popped it into his mouth. “Oh, my gosh.” He handed me a chunk. In a solid marble-sized piece, it melted even slower. We looked at each other and groaned with delight.
I learned to do a lot with chocolate. Created my own truffles. Used it in mousse au chocolat. Made a killer coconut cream pie whose custard is spooned over a layer of hardened chocolate in the baked pie shell. And the ultimate dessert that never ceases to amaze guests, a chocolate soufflé made in individual rings.
And, of course, it’s a great anti-depressant, when eaten all by itself. I’ve eaten a lot of it in the past three years, especially with Pinot Noir.
It takes me about two years to go through an entire block, which I keep tightly wrapped in its foil pouch. Yes, it does bloom, but nothing else has the same deep chocolate flavor, with just enough sweetness and even a hint of vanilla. Only two other things can transport me to France, Champagne (see Yes, I’m a Champagne Slut) and bread from Poîlane, other trips and other storiey.
In 2009, 20 years after our first visit, we returned to the Mont-Saint-Michel on the Autumnal Equinox, September 21, one of the few times of the year that the parking area at the foot of the causeway was closed because the tide came in so high that the water almost completely surrounded the island. Silting at the mouth of the river, as well as construction of the causeway, prevented it from occuring on a regular basis. However, in 2015, a bridge opened to link the mainland to the island so that the causeway could be removed. We parked on the mainland and started walking, as the water receded, and cars returned to the carpark. It was even more spectacular than we remembered.
Last week, I found out through a distant cousin, that our Italian great-grandmother’s mother was French! I like to think that explains it all. Now, if someone could explain to me why I buy stuff in the airport without properly calculating the exchange rate, please get in touch. I’m always horrified by my foolishness when my credit card statement arrives. Of course, I’m always delighted with my souvenirs, such as the pair of buttery soft, lilac suede gloves that I bought at DaVinci airport in Rome, so who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!